New World Arrival
In the 16th century the Spanish came to the Americas, bringing goats.
We can assume that the goats chosen for Spain’s early trips overseas represented the average all-purpose Spanish goat before selective breeding and breed differentiation became popular. We might guess that the Royal Purse would pay for top-quality goats to send on such a voyage, but chances are that no one in Spain had a ‘better quality’ goat to sell. Cattle and sheep gained fairly early popularity with selective breeders in Europe, and would show on livestock census reports, but goats have been overlooked for centuriesa goat was just a goat, and would not have been particularly noticed or documented beyond its immediate use until 300 years later.
Still, we should not be deceived by the simplicity of the goats brought to the Americas. They originated in the days of natural sustainable agriculture, and represented genetic lines that could stand up to the simple care and knowledge of the 1500’s. This guaranteed that only the hardiest goats survived to breed. Spanish goats in the Americas are now some of the few goats that still reflect the ancient, efficient Spanish genesit has become increasingly difficult to find such goats, even in Spain. But until British voyagers hit America, Spanish goats were the only goats we had.
Let’s focus on the Spanish goats that made their way to what is now the United States.
The Spanish colonized the Americas from both sides. They left a goat trail. Some goats were brought from Spain to the Caribbean, through Florida, and onto Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. In the west, the goat trail runs from Mexico to California and Texas. So we have a mix of origins and possibly a little interbreeding in the middle. Remember that goats never received much documented attention, so the history is hard to verify, but Spanish goats in this country show their DNA to be of Iberian origin.
For the next couple of centuries the goats were used for milk, meat, hair, and hides. The goats survived well with minimal management, and those that became feral survived with no human management at all. They adapted well to their regions, and natural selection was the norm, producing a breed of goat that was an exceptionally well-adapted survivor.
Goats were some of the last animals to captivate the interest of large-scale livestock breeders and commercial markets. Cows and sheep had all of the attention, and next to that were pigs and chickens. The Spanish goats thus escaped the intensive and industrialized livestock management practices that became so popular in the 19th and 20th century. In this country, in the 1840’s, a goat was still just a goat.
More Goats on Boats
Meanwhile, in Spain, dairy goats were all the rage. There were many to choose from, and the ordinary Spanish goat was being upgraded to a ‘good milker’ with all of the many European varieties available. These northern European goats weren’t just strains, they were full-fledged breeds with well-documented sires, dams, and guaranteed results. The Spanish goats in the U.S. began to lose their Old Country cousins.
In the 1900’s came the beginning of the Angora goat industry in the United States. Angora goats from Turkish stock were imported for angora, and by the 1920’s Texas was flooded with them.
It took a few more years for the various European dairy breeds to gain a strong foothold in the United States, but they started to establish themselves in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Some Spanish goats may have been used as a subject of dairy upgrades, but Spanish goats have always done well with smaller udders that don’t get caught on the brush, so would not be a target for dairymen.
But we had forgotten the goat’s other purposemeat. Why did the demand for imported goat breeds soar in the early 20th century for dairy and Angora goats but barely rise for meat goats? Why did it take the meat goat industry so long to get going? The immediate thought would be “a change in cultural demographics,” but if you think about it, that doesn’t adequately explain the 70-year gap that kept most Spanish goats purebred until the 1990’s.
“There’s always been a demand for goat meat. They used to put it in bologna and pressed meats. There was a goat meat cannery in Texas. I even once saw an old can labeled “Goat Meat” but that was made before I was even born. . . (1922)”
Let’s get back to the story to see how this happened. But first we’ll divide the Southwest from the Southeast.
Texans have always done things in a very Big Way.
Since the 1800’s, Texas ranchers raised sheep, and lots of them. Thousands of sheep on ranches that covered thousands of acres. Spanish goats helped the ranchers by clearing brush. Included in this menu was Bitterweed, a pretty little annual with yellow flowers that grows throughout the southwest. It is highly toxic to sheep and cattle, and will kill them. But the Spanish goats could eat it and keep it under control.
Ranchers raised sheep for wool, and so naturally when Angora goats arrived in the U.S. in the late 1800’s, southwest sheep ranchers saw them as an excellent compliment to their wool flocks. On the big Texas ranches, goats required less hands-on care, had more young, and the market for mohair was strong. The Angora goats ate different graze than the sheep, so they could co-exist nicely with the sheep. Many Spanish goats lost their jobs to Angora goats, some were bred to them, but many others retained a unique usefulness:
“When the shearers came, they would camp out on the ranch. Most were Mexican, and were very happy to eat goat meat. The ranchers ate it, too. That’s what the Spanish goats were for. You needed a small animal, because in many counties there was no electricity until the 1950’s. Because there was no refrigeration, you needed something that you could eat before the meat went bad. Lambs were more expensive than goats. Angora goats were more expensive than Spanish goats, because you could sell Angoras for meat and hair. Spanish goats were just for meat, so those were the ones for eating. And the Spanish goats could just take care of themselves. . .”
Then came the demise of the mohair industry beginning in the mid 1960’s. But by then the goat market was already beginning to shift. Changes in transportation were affecting everything, and meat goats could be shipped more easily across the United States. The demand for goat meat hadn’t increased suddenly, it was the ability for Southwestern ranchers to meet that demand that had increased. And there were a whole lot of goat ranchers that needed to look in new directions as Angora goats lost their glory. The Spanish goats came into their own. In 1990, in Texas alone there were 280,000 purebred Spanish goats. They had become America’s meat goat.
“Transportation did change the industry. In the 1930’s, goats used to be put on the railroad out of Kerrville. I can remember in 1941’42 when trucks would drive by going to Fort Worth; big trucks with double-decks filled with goats and sheep. Shipping meat by refrigerated trucks was a lot more expensive then.”
Meanwhile in the Southeast. . . Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida had their own lines of Spanish goats. Most people in that area had heard the stories of how the goats had Spanish origins, but you could say that about most any of the area’s livestock. The goats weren’t called “Spanish” in the southeast: like Florida Cracker horses, Pineywoods cattle, and Gulf Coast sheep, they had become a part of the local heritage, were accepted as virtually indigenous, and named accordingly. Also, there was no pressing need to differentiate them from any other goat—Spanish goats were the only goats around. They were named after where they lived and what they did best: ‘brush goats,’ ‘woods goats,’ ‘briar goats,’ ‘scrub goats,’ and as you moved northwards they became ‘hills goats’ and ‘Virginia hill goats.’ They were not pedigreed, bred up, or used for meat on a large scale; they were used to clear the fast-growing brush. Meat was just a by-product. They retained their hardy heritage genes, but people forgot that they were a true breed in their own right. As in the southwest, the rising meat goat market brought new interest to the Spanish goats in the southeast. They weren’t just for brush anymore.
Bring in the Boers
In the 1970’s, livestock breeders were all busy doing their own thing. The ones that were in the business of beef, chicken, etc. were there because they had already learned the business, bought all the accessories, and had not failed. They weren’t about to switch horses (or cattle) midstream.
The real people involved in the meat goat industry were the Old Breeders and a few New Guys. Our heritage comes to light in many forms, including in language, and in goats. You could tell the New Guys apart: they were usually the ones using the more northern, “progressive” terms of ‘bucks’ and ‘does’ instead of ‘billies’ and ‘nannies.’
With a strong nationwide demand for goat meat, and that demand now being profitably fulfilled, the growing industry attracted a bit of attention. In fact, meat goats were getting global attention. It was finally time for the Meat Goat Imports, which meant Boer goats.
The Spanish goats now had some real competition.
“Some of those embryos were illegal immigrants!”
In the 1980’s Boers swept the western hemisphere, and waited in quarantine to enter the United States. Lancorp (the Boer Guys) had already positioned themselves to skim the western market, and the U.S. market was ready for them. Boer goats came into the U.S. in the early 1990’s, first as $1,000 embryos, then as $20,000 (or more) bucks. Surrogate mothers and new brides would naturally be Spanish meat goats, who were the only other meat goats around. Herd after herd of Spanish goats were turned into herds of fast-growing Spanish/Boer crossbreeds.
"Everyone was so excited about Boers. When Boer bucks first showed up at the fair, everyone wanted to breed to them, even the dairy goat people. They'd wait until evening, then sneak out back behind the barn, and breed their nanny to a Boer. The Boer owners were charging $250$600 cash for those breedings."
The New Guys started with Boers, and the trend continued as the hefty Boer kids set the new and higher standard for expected market weights. Soon everyone joined the Boer game. Well, almost everyone.
What's In a Name?
Spanish goats, brush goats, woods goats, briar goats, scrub goatsnone had registration papers, none had national sires to boast about, and the names became synonymous with “no particular breed.” That’s where the problem arose. And it’s still a problem today, as people who are interested in conservation overlook the old brush-clearing goat in the back forty with no idea that it is a Spanish goat waiting to be bred, perhaps the last of a bloodline. Many use the term ‘Spanish goat’ to innocently describe goats with Spanish bloodlines in them, and others are a bit confused about whether this means a purebred goat of Spanish origin or a mixed-breed goat used for brush. Spanish goats come in a variety of colors and sizes, and many sport different looks. Geographical isolation will always produce a variety of strains that vary in size and appearance. The lack of breed standardization makes it all the more difficult to pinpoint a goat as being ‘Spanish.’ But it can be done.
“We bred black Spanish goats. They’re no better or worse than the colored ones, but easier to spot when there are other goats around. And they look good. It only takes a couple or few generations to get them all black.”
The DNA checks out. There are still many purebred Spanish goats out there.
We Almost Lost Them
Not everyone crossbred their Spanish goats. Some breeders had worked for years to improve their Spanish herds, and were deservingly pleased with the results. Some just preferred the hardiness and adaptability of Spanish goats, others knew from experience that oftentimes crossbreeds lose their appeal over time for many reasons.
The Old Breeders are still around, and you can read their fascinating stories on the Bloodlines page. However, until recently these breeders were a bit tricky to find unless you knew where to look. Most of them don’t have internet access, and word-of-mouth works for many, but not for the New Guys on the block.
Many breeders of Spanish/Boer crosses have been a little disillusioned by the effects of the increasingly Boer-based genetic traits in their herds. Boers require more input, which makes them less cost-effective. They wanted to add more Spanish to their herds, but couldn’t find them.
“People started to crossbreed Spanish goats with Boer goats. 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.”
“I wanted to get more Spanish into my herd, but didn’t know how to find them. They used to be everywhere, but now you can’t find them anywhere.”
2007 and Beyond
2007 marked the beginning of the Spanish Goat Association. The challenges before us are to find the remaining purebred Spanish goats in the United States, ensure that their breeders are aware that the goats have become a conservation priority, and aid in the preservation of this breed in any way possible. Although we estimate a population of about 8,000 Spanish goats, many are in large herds of over 1,000. There were, in 2007, only a few breeders. The number is growing. The "older" breeders have shown years of dedication to conserving the breed, and the new breeders are helping to ensure a promising and secure future for the breed as a whole. But we're still in the balance, and we need to keep expanding with hardiness at heart. Please join us in finding and conserving purebred Spanish goats.
We would like to extend our thanks to everyone who has helped in this effort.
The breeders of purebred Spanish goats deserve the deepest thanks of all.
Special thanks for the information on this page goes to:
Our Breeders; The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy; The American Meat Goat Association; Marjorie Bender; Juan Vicente Delgado Bermejo; Richard Browning Jr.;
Goat Rancher Magazine; John Guice; Scott Hollis; Gordon Douglas Ingles; Ámparo Martínez Martínez; The Pineywoods Cattle Raisers' Association; Frank Pinkerton; Justin Pitts; Valerie Porter; Stuart Southwell; Phil Sponenberg; Texas Angora Goat Raisers’ Association; and Ron Yoakum.
Return to Top