There are dozens of different goat breeds from around the world, but here in the U.S., we tend to see just a handful (sad, but true). Goat breeds fall into three main categories, depending upon their intended use: meat, milk, or fiber. Some breeds are used for cross-purposes.
As for why breed diversity is slim pickings Stateside, one needs to understand that we’re one of the few cultures in the world that doesn’t routinely eat goat. Goat is the most widely consumed meat worldwide, and a staple throughout Latin America, Africa, Central Asia the Caribbean, Middle East, and parts of Europe.
While goat is gaining ground on North American high-end and ethnic menus, we’re just too squeamish (and anthropomorphic) for it to catch on as a mainstream protein source. It’s a shame, because goat is good eating (look to future posts on this topic).
Cultures that consume goat meat also prize their milk as a source of vital protein and other nutrients, often in the form of yogurt or cheese. In certain parts of the world, goats are even used as pack animals. For most of the planet, goat and its by-products provide subsistence, and have serious economic, as well as social, value.
We also don’t prize goats for their fiber, although we’re all familiar with cashmere (derived from the fine, silky hair of the Kashmir or Cashmere goat, or Pygora or Nigora goats), and mohair, which comes from the Angora goat (not to be confused with the Angora rabbit, which is also used for its wool).
What North Americans love goats for (besides their inherent cuteness and ability to clear brush) is milk, primarily for use in cheesemaking. The most popular dairy breeds here mostly aren’t American in origin, but were brought to this country as dairy animals. Over the generations, due to improvements in breeding stock, these breeds have become prized for their various attributes, which range from milk yield and butterfat content, to temperament and mothering abilities.
Below, a guide to the most common American goat breeds:
Nubian: Although they have a rep for being a bit bratty and exceedingly vocal, this Middle Eastern/North African breed with the beguiling long ears and Roman nose produces high-butterfat milk. The Nubian’s yield is lower than that of other breeds, which is why they’re sometimes cross-bred. In color, they often have intricate spotted, patchy, or stripey patterns.
Alpine: These prolific milkers hail from the French Alps, and are immensely popular because they’re sturdy, gregarious, and adaptable to any climate. They vary in color.
LaMancha: Despite its misleading name, this “earless” breed originated in Oregon in the 1930′s. LaMancha refers to the windswept plains region of central Spain, as the breed is believed to have likely descended from the native Murciana goat. LaMancha’s do have ears, of course; it’s the pinna, or external portion, that’s missing. They’re prized for their high yields of butterfat-rich milk, friendly nature, and hardiness.
Toggenburg: This very old breed from the Switzerland’s Toggenburg Valley is the Honda of goats: mid-size, sturdy, and moderate (with regard to milk yield and butterfat content).
Saanen: One of the most “goaty” looking caprines, Saanens are white-to-cream in color, with forward-pointing, slightly floppy ears and a calm temperament. They have the highest milk yield, but a low butterfat content.
Oberhasli: If ever there were a goat beauty pageant, these gregarious, russet-to-bay animals with their black dorsal stripes, legs, and muzzles (a pattern known as “chamoisee”) would kill it. Oberhasli’s are growing in popularity here, but they originated in the Swiss Alps, where they’re widely used because of their high yield and butterfat content.
Nigerian Dwarf: Despite their name, which sounds like something from a kinky Craigslist ad, these are miniature goats of West African origin. While some cheesemakers such as Oregon’s Pholia Farm use Nigerians for their production, the breed is really making its mark on the urban goat husbandry market. Most cities require backyard goats to be crossed with Nigerians or Pygmy goats, to keep them at a manageable size. Despite their small stature, Nigerian’s produce a high volume of milk, making them ideal for caprine-loving urbanites.