THE AMERICAN CASHMERE INDUSTRY
World markets for the downy undercoat produced by goats have long recognized cashmere as the finest fiber known to man. Victorian England prized the famous "ring shawls" woven in India. They were made from cashmere shed by goats passing through the Indian State of Kashmir (hence the name) on their way to summer pasture in the mountains. These full-length shawls were so fine that the entire garment could easily pass through a lady's wedding band.
Demand increased for sweaters, suits, coats and even socks as the wonderful feel or handle of the fiber combined with low bulk and high loft proved to be the softest, warmest, most comfortable garment that money could buy. The cashmere producing areas remained in the Himalayan region, extending east to China and west to Iran. But because of geographical and political obstacles, Western processors never saw the animals that produced the fiber. They bought cashmere in bulk, primarily in India, China and Iran. In the early 1970's, Australia recognized that the herds of wild or feral goats loose in the Outback were a potential source of cashmere. Aussies rounded up the feral goats, which were not unlike those found in Texas, and the Australian Cashmere Industry was born. Today, they produce about 65 tons of cashmere annually and were the source for imported breeding stock here in America (even those that came via New Zealand).
Mongolia has been in the news lately as the second leading nation to produce cashmere, harvesting more than 2000 tons each year. Since Outer Mongolia was "freed" from Soviet domination, herdsmen have built up their herds resulting in greater production. Unfortunately, most of Mongolia is a desert and the increased pressure on the natural resources means that many goats raised for cashmere are subjected to harsh and conditions not unlike those endured by their owners. Goats may lose 40% of their body weight during the winter and their cashmere is harvested using a toothed comb. The fiber, along with that from China, effectively flooded the market resulting in record low prices. In 1999, Mongols were paid a mere $7 per pound of cashmere, but that price has increased.
China is, by far the leading goat growing nation in the world. The Chinese dominate both in numbers of goats (over 3 million) and in cashmere production (more than 3000 tons annually). They have their own processing plants and spin and knit the majority of the cashmere sweaters that are now so popular in America and Europe. Their labor is cheap and the land where the goats are raised is unsuitable for other agricultural enterprises. Excess animals are consumed by the Chinese and in some areas, hides are still used for shelter and clothing.
But what about here in America? Can we compete with Mongolia and China and dominate the world markets? The answer of course, is no. Not now, not ever. We must establish our own niche... an industry we can call our own that is different from China's... different from Australia's... different and better. We Americans must go back to the basics and manage goats as our ancient ancestors once did thousands of years ago... as pack and food animals... providers of shelter and clothing... Man's first domesticated animal. Today, we must manage the goat and exploit their natural abilities, combining income (both monetary and practical) from each of the goats' resources.
In Texas, California, Florida and New Jersey, the meat goat industry has been a fixture for years. The markets are well established and relatively stable. Only in Texas is the range suitable for running goats in large numbers. These goats can, and do, produce cashmere along with the meat. But this resource is not being exploited by the majority of Texas goat producers generally due to a low value of the cashmere. Harvesting cashmere from a meat goat herd involves extra work... time and manpower to gather the herd, money to pay the shearer and ship the product to the warehouse in Sonora, TX. It also involves altering the breeding season so that kidding and shearing do not happen simultaneously and handling the sale goats differently so they can be shorn before they are sold as meat. Understandably, Texas meat goat producers will not exploit the cashmere aspect of their herds until they realize that it pays to do so. Effectively, the American Cashmere Industry has thousands of potential fleeces in reserve, so to speak. When the return per animal is high enough to justify the expense, the Texas meat goat producer will shear. It's possible to monitor their herds, allowing the doe time and energy to produce her cashmere crop as well as her kid crop. The culls will be trucked to the auction house down the road and the fiber shorn in mid winter. Fears that freshly shorn does will abort and/or die at the next ice storm have gone largely unrealized. Cashmere goats are hardier than their Angora cousins are. It must be remembered that especially in rural West Texas, livestock enterprises are usually the mainstay of the family's income. Decisions are not made lightly and non-profitable ventures are not pursued. Goats are a business, pure and simple.
There are approximately 150 cashmere producers across the country raising approximately 2,000 goats that are harvested on a regular basis. Progress is being made, the product is out there in the hands of the consumer and the feedback is positive. They want more. And as the price comes down, more people will want more cashmere. Sooner or later, we will reach a point where a ball will be set in motion that will allow the industry to take a quantum leap. The Texas goat reserve will then be shorn and US cashmere production will double. Then, we can market American grown cashmere sweaters created by American designers and sold in American department stores. This is called value adding... this is the American way.
So how do we make this happen sooner rather than later? Good question... Let's go back to the beginning. All goats grow cashmere, except the Angora goat, which grows mohair. Goats can live anywhere... from the wilds of Wyoming to the Florida Keys. Goats will find something to eat no matter where they are. Goats are easy to keep and are naturally hardy, good mothers that normally twin. Each mother goat (called a doe in the cashmere world) will wean an average of 1.5 kids per year over her lifetime of 8 -10 years. These 30 - 40 pound kid goats will sell on the meat market for $.75 to $1.00 per pound. Older animals, especially market wethers at 70 - 100 pounds will sell at the top of the price range in the right market. The right markets are located in Florida, Texas, California, New York and Canada. At this time, the delivery system and the pipeline to the markets is not well established outside the immediate market area. That leaves goat growers in mid-continent out in the dark momentarily. But even this is changing.
Back to our mother goat. She will shear 1/4 to 1/2 of a pound of cashmere mixed into with the coarser guard hair every year and her kids will shear a similar amount. At $30 per pound (a price supported industry if there ever was one), that's $30 per year per doe/kids unit, right? WRONG! In reality, shorn cashmere fleece does not sell for $30 a pound. Goat growers must realize that it is a long and winding road from shearing parlor to the bank... a road that is populated with wrong turns and robbers. As a goat is shorn, extreme care must be taken to harvest the precious fiber carefully, preserving as much as possible its length and integrity. Fiber less than 1-1/4 inches long has no place in a sweater and will be put in a classed line that returns perhaps only $7.50 per pound. This short fiber can be due to genetics or mechanics; a goat may not grow long fiber and should not be shorn (although she can be bred to a high producing buck resulting in shearable kids). Mechanically, short fiber appears when the shearer slips and does not cut the fleece close to the skin. The mistake happens when he goes back again to tidy up. The resulting "second cuts" are the scourge of the sweater industry. Short fibers that sneak through to the spinning and knitting (or weaving) stage will eventually "pill", making an unsightly and prickly little ball of fuzz on an otherwise smooth and soft surface.
Another wrong turn on the road to the bank involves the presence of contamination (burrs, alfalfa dust. lice, urine) in the shorn fleece, all of which will cause the beautiful fiber to end up in a lower priced line. A particularly frustrating blind alley is that of the short low yield fleece. Fiber which is in itself long and fine can be contained within a lock of guard hair that is more that 3 times its length. This will result in the placing of this precious fiber into a low paying bulk line. The Chinese have this alley figured out. They cut most of the long guard hair off the goat before they "harvest" the cashmere.
Once the fiber is shorn and bagged in classed bulk lines, it must then be dehaired. Dehairing is the process of separating the precious underdown (cashmere) from its bed of surrounding guard hairs. Dehairing is a mechanical process, virtually unchanged since the industrial revolution that uses an air stream and toothed rollers to coax the cashmere away from its protective guards. This is an expensive and complex process that results in the loss of up to 50% of the goat fleece fed into the machine. So great is the competition between countries and among cashmere processors, the dehairing and spinning process falls into the top secret (do-not-ask-because-we-will-not-tell) category. Those with more efficient methods want to keep them to themselves. There have been a few small scale dehairing machines developed in the United States but they have not proven to be either a commercial or a practical success. There is a small scale processor in California that will dehair small lots of raw cashmere. The resulting batt is beautifully dehaired but at a significant cost both monetary and physical. Only 50% of the consigned fiber is returned to the consignee and the "left overs" are retained by the processor. These are the realities of the cashmere industry. No one ever said it would be easy. That is why the price of cashmere sweaters, jackets and shawls has been so astronomical through the years.
But back to our very patient doe. She has been shorn, has given birth to twins and can be counted on to produce somewhere in the range of $50 to $100 worth of products per year. But at what cost?? This is the $64,000 question... and it has more than one answer. In Texas, it can cost virtually nothing. Texas meat goats are sometimes run on range already populated with cattle, sheep, or in some cases, exotic deer. They eat what's left over and are rounded up only to cut off the marketable kids. Bucks run with them year round and they are never vaccinated, trimmed, doctored or shorn. An occasional dousing with a pesticide is possible. This provides enough of a return to justify their presence without harvesting the cashmere. Indeed, in times of severe drought and depressed market prices for beef, lamb and fiber, Texas ranchers cut back on livestock... but they keep their goats! Texas cashmere producers are somewhat more liberal with their care and maintenance of goats. They worm, sometimes vaccinate and always shear. Feed is normally supplemented with grains only during late winter. They might spend $5 per head per year on maintenance.
In more northern climes such as Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska herds of goats are run on former cattle and sheep range or dairy farms. Land is more expensive here than in Texas, but much less expensive than in less rural areas, and there is an economy of scale when running more than 200 head on large acreage. The goats are normally wormed perhaps twice a year; feet must be trimmed once a year, vaccinations given once a year and feed supplemented during the winter. Three to five pounds of grass hay per head and 1/2 pound of grains per head per day are fed, and depending upon the source of the hay and grains that supplement winter forage on pasture, annual costs can vary from $5 to $30 per head per year.
In the Northeast, Northwest, the South and the Midwest, small-scale producers grow goats. These forward-looking people usually have a post-high school education, a "real" job, and a small acreage upon which they run goats. In many cases, the fiber is harvested by hand combing and hand spun into family heirlooms. In the past, they have been called hobby farmers. These folks carefully attend to their goats, which number from 5 to 50. They buy custom mixed feed. They trim feet once or even twice a year. They hover at kidding time and name each kid. The most important thing that they do is expose the American consumer to the cashmere goat industry through stories in the local paper, animals shown at the local fair, or speaking to passersby leaning over the fence with some questions. These people are in business AND... they enjoy it. Unlike cattle or sheep, goats are entertaining and intelligent. This can, at times, be frustrating as the lead doe concocts new and ingenious ways to break out of the pasture or break into the grain bin, but goats are by far the most intelligent domestic ruminants. They can be trained to do almost anything. One hobbyist in Maine had an abandoned kid housetrained and it occupied the couch in front of the TV!
A tale from an experienced goat packer in Wyoming sums it up. A very large wether goat had been trained to carry 150-pound packs through some of Wyoming's most rugged and scenic backcountry. Before one particularly difficult and dangerous passage across a cliff face on a narrow path, this wether had been accidentally mispacked, the large bulky side carrying the supplies was to his left instead of the compact lead weights required to balance the load. The line of pack goats traversed the path until this particular one. As he stepped upon the path, the bulk of the pack impacted the sheer rock wall and he was unable to proceed, The packer, realizing his mistake, decided that the only course of action was to wait until the mid-path goats completed the traverse and then go back and repack the goat. But our goat had a better idea. He backed up, turned around and made the entire traverse in reverse! Truly a monument not only to intelligence, but to agility as well. Now this has nothing to do with how much it costs to keep a goat, but it was an interesting aside.
Annual vaccinations cost $.14 per shot, 3 times the first year for kids and once annually for adults. Worming occurs two to three times per year and costs $.50 - $1 a throw. Feed is doled out at a rate of 5% of bodyweight per day in a balanced combination of TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients), protein, vitamins and minerals (anywhere from $30 - $40 per year per goat), and shearing costs $1.50 to $2.00 per head. That adds up pretty quickly to as much as $50 per head per year and now it is easy to understand the basic Texas approach.
A cashmere goat that is one that is cared for, selected, and fed properly. She kids only once a year and is shorn once. She is fed extra during her last trimester of pregnancy and the kids are duly, recorded and cared for. And she responds by growing a fiber fit for kings. Cashmere goats can be the focus for a family project. But they are no get-rich-quick scheme. You must have a certain skill level to coax maximum production from your herd. Vagaries of weather, timing, feed quality, health and predators can have a significant impact upon your bottom line and often these can be devastating. A single den of foxes can wipe out a kid crop as can an ill-timed snowstorm. There are no guarantees. But if you already like goats, half the battle is won. Goats need to be understood and handled with a gentle touch. This is why the majority of the cashmere growers in both America and Australia are women. This is not to say that men do not work goats, they do, especially in Texas. But the size and demeanor of the goat is amenable to a woman's physique and psyche. This opens up a whole new area in which a woman can contribute significantly or even run the whole show if she chooses to. While possible, it is unusual for a woman to run a cattle herd single-handedly.
Additionally, goats make wonderful FFA and 4H prospects for children. The best part is that children can choose between showing meat wethers or fiber animals. A meat wether project would result in carcass evaluation just like sheep and steer projects, while a fiber project would be held over year after year. We are working on finalizing a Project Book and judging workshops will begin training more judges. To date there are six certified judges trained by CaPrA (Cashmere Producers of America) who reside mostly in Texas and the Rocky Mountain States. Other judges-in-training are from the Northeast and Northwest. If demand requires it, we will formulate a judging criteria that can be used by certified dairy and Angora judges to handle cashmere classes at State and local fairs. Since most fairs are held in the summertime when the goats are not in fleece, shorn or combed fleeces can be sent to certified cashmere judges beforehand for evaluation prior to the conformation class. It would then be up to the judge in the ring to place the class as he/she sees fit, using the input from the fleece judging card and his/her opinion of the contestant's conformation in the ring. It must be remembered that all goats (except Angoras) grow cashmere and as such can be entered in a cashmere goat 4H or FFA project. Many goats currently in the 4H program have no other choice besides dairy or pygmy classes. The judging criteria for these breeds is very strict and only "typey" (ie: typical dairy or pygmy) goats place well. In reality, there are many, many goats entered in the classes that are not "to type" particularly, although they are well loved by their owners. Entering these goats in a cashmere class will give the owners a chance to win a ribbon, instead of being out placed year after year by the purebred goat breeders. This will allow our youth, the future, to gain an introduction to goats as livestock enterprises.
Unfortunately, our small-scale producers cannot grow enough cashmere to even begin to grease the wheels of a market machine. There are perhaps 100 producers growing an average of 20 goats. This is nowhere near the amount necessary to form the basis for an industry. The former manager of Forte Cashmere Company, Hugh Hopkins, estimated in 1989 that America needs to shear 400,000 goats every year in order to end up with enough yam to make a marketable product. In order to call ourselves a real industry and compete overseas, we need to shear a million goats. How can we increase our numbers?? We need to use goats as WEEDBUSTERS!
The northern tier states have two things in common... vast tracts of land and a scourge of spurge. Leafy spurge is an insidious noxious weed that is dominating the bottomlands. Cattle won't touch it and sheep turn up their noses. The spurge not only blooms profusely, sending sticky seed pods along for a ride on any passing beast, it sends down miles of roots and rhizomes that expand the spurge patch and choke out the native grasses. And spurge is on the move. Some northern Wyoming counties report a 100% spurge infestation of bottomlands. Goats to the rescue! Goats love spurge. In fact, goats get addicted to spurge and will eat nothing but spurge, until it's time to repair to the nearest hillside and ruminate. There, they will rest and chew cud, perhaps nibbling a bit on the available sagebrush. Then, it's back down to the spurge. It cannot be said that goats can eradicate spurge. They cannot. What they do is prevent spurge from reproducing sexually (making seeds) by eating the flower before it can set the seed. They also curtail the degree of asexual (sending out rhizomes) reproduction because the plant will continue to strive to make a seed, depleting its below ground energy reserve. Goats will walk right by timothy, clover and wheat grass in a hay meadow on their way to the spurge patch. And there is not a penny spent on herbicides. If the cashmere industry can convince the northern tier ranchers and farmers to use goats instead of weed spray, we could add thousands of goats to the shearing parlor roll call.
There is a slight problem here though... or maybe a couple. For one, goats need good fences or else constant supervision. As was stated above, animals and can get themselves (and their owners) into a fix pretty quickly if they are not well fenced. They love young trees, flowers and all kinds of bushes and could quickly become a liability with the neighboring orchard, garden or vineyard. The second small problem is that, believe it or not, some people just don't like goats. No, it's true! You've heard of the Great Western Range Wars a 100 years ago when sheepmen tried to move onto cattle country'? There was ten years of bloodshed, both human and ovine. The bad blood took years to wash away. It's funny, but ask a typical Wyoming sheep man about running goats and the old Range War mentality boils to the surface. We've got a long row to hoe in parts of the Old Wild West.
But elsewhere, in more pacific places like Iowa, Illinois and the thoroughly sophisticated Canadian Provinces, goats can be run just like cattle or sheep. With proper management goats can actually improve historic cattle or sheep pastures by eating down the weeds and the brush making it possible to stock the range with more cattle or sheep than before the introduction of goats. The goats can then move on to other marginal range. Whereever there are weeds to eat, goats can flourish. New applications need to be explored such as using goats to mow and weed sod farms or to nibble on the fringes of non-preferred crops, or to top onion or potato fields before harvesting. With a little bit of imagination, goats can be put to a variety of uses. But when goats are out on range suitable for cattle or sheep, generally speaking, running 5 - 6 goats is the same as running a single cow/calf unit. Both units will consume about 26 pounds of forage per day. This is referred to as an Animal Unit and the Soil Conservation Service classifies all range in terms of Animal Unit Months (AUMs). If a unit of pasture is classified as having an AUM rating of 1, then 1 cow and 1 calf or 5 - 6 goats can be grazed there for one month. A 3-month-old calf is worth $300, and the 7 - 9 kid goats that could be raised on the same feed are worth as meat animals $30 each ($210 - $270), before shipping costs. Think about using goats in a field or a pasture that is overrun with weeds, it suddenly becomes productive again. Not by using weed spray or cattle, but by substituting goats. It becomes evident that maybe goats do make sense. It's something to think about.
There is one more area that has not yet been discussed... Boer goats. Boer goats? Boer goats are from South Africa, originally, and in some circles, they are all the rage from Canada to Texas. They are first, last and always a meat breed. They are long and well muscled, docile and have tremendous appetites. The breed standard very carefully describes every aspect of a Boer from its horn shape and size to its coloration. The standard discourages fuzzy underdown. But nonetheless, there are Boer goats (mostly young ones) with cashmere on them. The future holds the possibility of crossing these fuzzy Boers with cashmere stock (or visa versa) and coming up with a shearable meat goat. The cashmere production probably will not persist in these crossbreds as they grow older, but if they are going to the slaughter market at a tender, young age, who cares? Shearing would have to be done a couple of weeks before shipping to market to allow any unintentional cuts to heal so as not to ruin the hide as a saleable product, but this is possible. Anything is possible! The future holds many things in the goat industry.
There is probably someone already raising cashmere goats in your area. You should talk to them. Find out about goats in your region. Exchange ideas on how to best exploit the goats' natural talents. You will need this neighbor to more economically market your products. You can call or write any or all of the organizations listed below for their list of members and their newsletters. But the best thing you can do is learn about the industry before you invest. One of the reasons that the cashmere goat industry did not follow in the path of the llama industry or the ostrich industry was the fact that cashmere goats are not a breed. There is no such thing as a "purebred" cashmere goat. Also, there is no universally recognized registry for cashmere goats, although a few are trying pretty hard. This is because the definition of "a breed" is the ability for two like animals to mate and produce like progeny, most of the time. Historically, breeds are distinct only through their coloration (Palomino, Appaloosa) or their gross physical appearance (Basset Hounds, Greyhounds). These characteristics are very heritable and make it easy to distinguish purebreds from crossbreds. In the cashmere industry, the breed will be identified by its fiber. And it's not easy to look at 15-micron fiber and discern it from 20-micron fiber. The scientific testing methods are available, but expensive. And the goat's fiber continuously morphs from fine to coarser as the goat ages. A goat's micron diameter will increase 1.5 microns over the course of its lifetime. To further confuse things, environment plays a role in the appearance (phenotype) of the fiber. So Buyer Beware.
Goats are wonderful animals. But they have been dismissed by society! Have you ever tried to find a playful goat amongst the Holsteins, Piggys, Hens and Kitty's that dot the shelves of the local Hallmark Store? No! They are just not there! Goats should get more respect! Take the time to find out how goats work... what they are. There are some fine publications available. In addition to the newsletters associated with each of the organizations listed below, CaPrA has copies of the most recent conference proceedings and a handy little thing called GoaTips. Even better, videotapes of the presentations of the internationally recognized group of researchers who presented papers at the conference are available from CaPrA. The ECA has an excellent paper concerning goat health. This author has developed a web page at www.capcas.com which is "The Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Cashmere But Didn't Know Where To Look " source as well as copies of the book by Drs Pattie and Restall concerning goat genetics and the methods to apply their scientific findings to selection in your own herd.
There is a lot of information out there and some of it is confusing and even conflicting. But if you take it upon yourself to find out more about it before you invest, you might just find your niche.
824 S Hwy 287
Laramie WY 82070
Cashmere America Cooperative
Dr Joe David Ross, President
210 SW College
Sonora, TX 76950
Marti Wall, Director (Washington)
Eastern Cashmere Association (ECA)
319 Brock School Road
Buckfield, ME 04220
NorthWest Cashmere Association (NWCA)
Guy Triplett, President
63300 Silvis Rd
Bend, OR 97701
Texas Cashmere Association (TCA)
Bill Nagel, President
4625 Sandy Fork Rd
Harwood, TX 78632