Come May, Yvonne Zweede-Tucker will have more than 400 wobbly-legged newborn kids clomping around her 200-acre ranch in Choteau, about doubling the size of her goat herd, among the largest in the state. But it's still not enough.
"Right now," she says, "we already have orders beyond our production for this year...They're banging down our door."
U.S. demand for goat meat—thought to be the world's most widely consumed meat—far exceeds supply, driven largely by ethnic populations in urban centers. Goat meat is a staple in Mexican, Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean and southern Italian cuisines, among others, and it's become an increasingly trendy culinary treat. Zweede-Tucker sells many of her goats to new and expanding breeders.
"Here in Montana, we produce them very efficiently," says Zweede-Tucker, who along with her husband has been raising goats since 1991, "but they are consumed elsewhere, like in Chicago, California and Seattle—basically everywhere other than here."
Goat meat demand prompted Zweede-Tucker to organize the first "Profitable Meat Goats Conference," held at the end of March in Indianapolis, Ind.
"One of our customers said, 'Gosh, I wish there was a place to go to learn everything you guys have learned in 18 years,'" Zweede-Tucker says. "Well, we don't know all the answers, but we managed to gather 11 Ph.D.s and share incredibly good information with the objective of making a go of the meat goat business."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that Montana producers count a total of 9,000 goats, ranking near the bottom. On the top sits Texas with about 980,000, nearly a quarter of the country's 2.5 million goats.
Bill Laning, president of the Sonora, Texas-based American Meat Goat Association's board of directors, says goat kids typically sell for between $1.50 and $2 per pound on the hoof, significantly more that the $1 to $1.40 per pound calves bring in.
And beyond the premium paid for goat meat, their food, at least during part of the year, can be dirt cheap.
"They select forages not typically selected by cattle—knapweed, leafy spurge, buckbrush," Zweede-Tucker says. "You name it, they adore it. That's an opportunity. We can turn a detriment into a benefit."