Going for growth with goats

Published: May 2018  |  By: Nicola Bell 
ecision by the Gates family to swap from Merino sheep to rangeland goats has 
reaped them financial rewards and improved the productivity of their land.
The decision by the Gates family to swap from Merino sheep to rangeland goats has 
reaped them financial rewards and improved the productivity of their land.
The decision by the Gates family to swap from Merino sheep to rangeland goats has 
reaped them financial rewards and improved the productivity of their land.

THERE is no doubting the climate in the Western region of NSW can be harsh, and the rainfall is low and variable. For the Gates family, running an enterprise that suits the local environment has been key to its success.

While goats have long been thought of as a pest that degrade the land, for Rick and Joanne Gates – and for many others – these animals have made their business profitable again, allowing them to expand and helping to clear out weeds along the way.

In the early 1990s, off the back of the wool floor price crash, Rick and Joanne decided to sell their Merinos and establish their rangeland goat depot on their station Burndoo, 70km south-east of Wilcannia.

Rick explains that Merino sheep were becoming more difficult to run due to the amount of burr in their fleece. And with the low wool prices, the farmer adds that they were starting to notice a big difference in the price they were getting for wool compared to sheep run on “good country”.

The Gates family uses a small plane and team of motorbikes to muster.

That’s where the rangeland goat came in. They had considered breeding Dorper sheep – but the cost of ewes at $200 to $250 per head, compared to buying small goats at about $10, made the decision for them.

The rangeland goat, according to the Goat Industry Council of Australia, is a composite breed that has become naturalised and has adjusted to the Australian environment, to the extent that it no longer bears any strong resemblance to the original domesticated goats introduced by European settlers.

Rangeland goats are known to be hardy, able to thrive in low rainfall areas and can maintain high fertility in dry conditions.

Although Rick and Joanne’s son, Ross Gates (pictured below), who came back to the family business a few years ago, says that “there’s an old myth that goats can survive on anything, but they can’t, they need to be fed and managed”, their overall toughness makes them ideal for the Gates’ operation. This has resulted in returns well above what they could have imagined prior to the change from sheep.

Today, Rick, Joanne and Ross run their goat depot and goat trading business between their 25,000 hectare Burndoo home base, the 8,000ha Woolahra at Ivanhoe and the 24,290ha Keelambara at Tilpa, all in the Western region. They process about 150,000 goats annually, depending on the season.

With wild goat numbers in Australia exceeding 2.6 million, there are strong preconceptions about the animals eating everything and anything. However, Rick says if anything, the goats have helped the productivity of their land. 

“The goats have cleaned out areas of woody weeds and scrub, like broad-leaf hopbush and turpentine, and now 80% of the woody weed problem is under control,” he says.

Rick adds that ground cover of perennial grasses like clover and medic is improved, providing that the stocking density is “sensible”. So despite popular belief, goats have helped improve their land. He says that goats also graze differently to sheep or cattle, in small mobs, which has proved easier on the country and resulted in less grazing pressure.

With a 250mm a year average rainfall, the environment is fairly dry, and stocking rate is the key. Explains Ross: “At the moment it is pretty dry here and we don’t have the feed to keep them [goats], but in a good year we keep most of the smaller ones.” 

They sell 2,500 to 3,500 a week. The goats are purchased on a per-kilogram price from other stations, then mustered with the help of a small plane and motorbikes. 

The nannies and billies are separated, classed into weights and either sold over-the-hooks directly to the abattoir – about 90% of the time – or turned out into paddocks to grow out. The business was previously just a depot, but the family now have enough country to keep some goats and grow them out to an average of about 30kg.  

With the over-the-hooks price at about $5/kg carcase weight (cwt) currently, Ross says it is “good money”. Increasing world demand for goatmeat pushed domestic prices to a record $7.50/kg cwt in mid-2017, about four times the price of a decade ago. 

Goatmeat is the most widely consumed meat in the world, despite contributing a relatively small part to domestic consumption of red meat. About 88% of Australia’s goatmeat production is exported, leaving only 12% to be consumed domestically.

The United States is the largest export market, taking 66% of the total volume, and according to Meat & Livestock Australia, demand for goatmeat from US consumers is increasing.

Rick believes that all Australian red meats have a strong export future. “What is critical is we can guarantee our product. I can’t see our markets going backwards any time soon, no-one has the quality of Australian goats.”

One advantage is that the Australian rangeland goats are thought of as being organically grown. “They are free-range, they aren’t lot-fed and they are 
chemical-free,” says Ross.

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