Breed Profile: Spanish Goat
The Tried-and-True American Heritage Landrace Provides the Best Goats for Meat
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Breed: The Spanish goat is the native landrace of the United States. However, it has gone unrecognized due to the many names used for these goats in different areas. For instance, they are sometimes called scrub, woods, brier, hills, or Virginia hill goats. The confusion arises because mixed-breed brush goats assigned with clearing weeds often go under the same name. Nevertheless, heritage Spanish goats have a distinct gene pool. Their unique qualities include hardiness, efficiency, and suitability to various New World climates.
The Long History of Spanish Goats in America
Origin: Spanish colonists brought goats to Caribbean and Mexican shores during the 1500s. Goats in Spain and Portugal were an undefined landrace at the time. Ironically, the breed no longer exists in Europe due to selection and crossbreeding.
History: Spanish settlers radiated out from the Caribbean, up through Florida, to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Similarly, they migrated via Mexico to New Mexico, California, and Texas. In time, their goats adapted to the local landscapes and conditions as they browsed free range. Some served homesteaders for milk, meat, hair, and hide, whereas others became feral. Due to tough outdoor living, local strains arose through natural selection and regional isolation. These varieties became totally suited to the hot and unforgiving climates where they lived. However, they were not considered a breed. In the 1840s, they were the only kind of goat in the U.S.
In the late 1800s, Texan farmers started to include imported Angora goats in their sheep flocks. Previously, Spanish goats made themselves useful clearing pasture underbrush. Now Angora herds took on this function. Meanwhile, family and workers kept on a few Spanish to serve as cheap meat. In this respect, Angoras and sheep were too valuable as fiber animals. Then in the 1960s, Angora production became unprofitable. Meanwhile, Texan farmers saw the means to expand meat farming into a profitable business. At this time, better transport was making markets more accessible. They realized that the Spanish goat was ideal for the new industry. Being hardy and prolific, they made the best use of extensive range.
Southeastern farmers kept goats for clearing brush, with meat as a by-product, and developed some strains for cashmere production. These smaller herds evolved unique adaptations to the specific challenges of their environments.
Risks of Extinction Through Competition
In the twentieth century, imported breeds competed for farmers’ favor. Firstly, imported dairy goats became popular from the 1920s onward. Accordingly, many farmers crossed their Spanish does or replaced them with new breeds. Then in the 1990s, Boer imports were soon popular with meat farmers due to the breed’s meaty conformation. Geneticist, D. P. Sponenberg relates, “As is typical of most situations with imported breeds, these arrived with promotion from powerful economic forces that touted superior performance, while the local resource had never been truly evaluated.”
The fashion for foreign breeds devastated landrace goat numbers. Most Spanish does were given over to crossbreeding with Boers and few Spanish bucks were kept on. Hardly any does were available to maintain the landrace population which soon plummeted. The productivity of Boer goats diminished due to their lack of adaptation to American climes, particularly in the Southeast. As one breeder noted, “People would pay thousands of dollars for a Boer. All of a sudden, everyone wanted them. They put on meat fast. But they just couldn’t take care of themselves. A Boer goat will sit around near the house waiting to be fed. A Spanish goat will be off climbing a tree somewhere just to get a leaf. Now people are trying to get more Spanish into their goats.”
Fortunately, a few dedicated breeders preserved certain bloodlines established in different parts of the nation. The Spanish Goat Association started up in 2007 to support such efforts.
Conservation Status: On the Livestock Conservancy “Watch” list and listed “At Risk” by FAO.
A Precious Source of Important Genes
Biodiversity: DNA testing has validated these goats as a landrace with a common Iberian foundation and a unique gene pool. Herds have adapted to different regions with challenging climates, and can readily respond to climate change. Crossbreeding seriously threatens the conservation of their bounteous variety of genetic resources. Sponenberg recommends that we “…carefully evaluate local resources before replacing them with exotic resources, because local resources may indeed be equal or superior due to environmental adaptation.”
Adaptability: They have survived for hundreds of years in challenging conditions of the arid Southwest and the humid subtropical Southeast. As a result, they are rugged, robust, and rarely suffer from health issues. In fact, all strains are very hardy and tolerant of heat. Furthermore, southeastern strains show remarkable resistance to the parasite and hoof issues normally associated with damp climates. In addition, does are fertile and prolific, normally producing twins. They have a long productive life and are able to breed at any time of year.
Description: Rangy frame with varied appearance, size, and type. Common features include large ears, held horizontally forward, a straight or slightly concave face, and long horns with a distinctive twist.
Coloring: Widely variable.
Weight: 77–200 pounds (35–90 kg).
Popular Use: Meat, cashmere, and brush clearing.
Productivity: Spanish dams’ litters performed better than Boer and equal to Kiko when monitored in Nashville. Spanish does were more efficient, healthy, and long living. The sire’s breed had no effect.
Temperament: Active, curious, wary, but docile when socialized.
Quotes: “… this breed can handle almost any hot climate and rugged terrain. Strong, fertile, and parasite-resistant, this is the kind of goat that big ranchers dream about.” Spanish Goat Association.
“Spanish Goats are typically standoffish and curious but are easily tamed with repeated exposure to the goat producer. Easily the most adaptable meat goat on the planet.” Matthew Calfee, Calfee Farms, TN.
Sources: Spanish Goat Association; Livestock Conservancy;
Sponenberg, D. P. 2019. Local Goat Breeds in the United States. IntechOpen.
Feature photo is a Morefield Spanish buck. Photo credit: Matthew Calfee of Calfee Farms.
Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.