Are Angora goats getting weaker?

No one knows exactly how many Angora goats succumb annually to sudden cold snaps in South Africa. Farmers prefer not to talk about these fatalities – it’s too much like a death in the family. But as Roelof Bezuidenhout discovers, breeding for more fashionable finer fleeces might be responsible.
Issue Date: 30 April 2007

Angora rams in the small Karoo. Some farmers are concerned
that that in the attempt to produce finer hair, the constitution
of goats has suffered, making them susceptible to cold weather.

No one knows exactly how many Angora goats succumb annually to sudden cold snaps in South Africa. Farmers prefer not to talk about these fatalities – it’s too much like a death in the family. But as Roelof Bezuidenhout discovers, breeding for more fashionable finer fleeces might be responsible.

Early in March, persistent rain and icy winds again killed thousands of goats in the drier districts of the Eastern Cape. Now that the national flock is down to only about 900 000 animals, from almost 3 million in the late 1980s, such losses could become critical for an industry that has seen a dramatic reduction in mohair production in recent years. A ngora farmers often wonder if mohair buyers and end-users realise how risky mohair farming actually is and that a handful of superfine hair an Angora kid delivers at five months of age doesn’t come easily, even if it eventually brings in R200.

While growers have learned to live with predators, stock thieves, a short breeding season and volatile markets, losses suffered during cold snaps do tend to make them reassess the role of the little goats in their enterprises. After all, Merino and Dorper farmers sleep much better on stormy nights than mohair producers do! While the Angora is generally a lovely animal to farm with, sudden cold, wet and windy weather can wipe out even the most vigilant of mohair growers overnight, particularly if the flock is in poor condition due to drought, or if the farmer didn’t take the weather to heart.
But Garth Sampson, client liaison officer at the South African Weather Service in Port Elizabeth, insists that this time around, farmers had plenty of warning to shelter their newly shorn goats. “Admittedly, a forecast is a prediction, not fact. It gives the highest probability of an event occurring, but we did predict heavy falls could be expected over the eastern interior, including the southeastern coastal areas and accordingly issued an advisory that cold, wet conditions could spread inland, persisting until the Tuesday [6 March],” he says. “We also find that many modern farmers spend hours on the service’s website watching forecasts and radar imagery, and regularly phoning for regional updates.” But he warns that while these services are still free they will soon be commercialised, meaning farmers will have to start paying for comprehensive information.

Whatever the fee will be, its worth will have to be weighed up against the value of goats. few years ago, few farmers were interested in joining an insurance scheme designed specifically for losses due to rain, possibly because the mohair market was down at the time. With average prices now moving towards the R100/kg mark, more farmers might be tempted to pay for insurance and weather reports. After all, knock-on costs included, losing 500 goats could cost you a half a million rand. But Sampson disagrees with the contention that cold snaps are becoming more frequent and more severe. “Perceptions and opinions are dangerous. If one has a big loss this year, followed by a few more next year, one can easily conclude that the climate is changing for the worse, but there are too many variables. Were the weather warnings heeded? Did the cold hit during peak shearing season? Climate and weather is always cyclical, and I have been unable to pick up any major changes in those cycles,” he explains.

Meanwhile, farmers are looking for genetically based reasons for their losses. One Karoo farmer, who prefers to remain anonymous, is convinced his flock has become more sensitive to cold since he switched studs on the advice of his broker. “Twelve years ago I had nice sturdy goats with coarser hair. Now they are smaller with much finer fleeces. That is in line with market demand, but I have to watch them carefully until they have at least six weeks of hair growth,” he says. Shorn goats don’t need freezing temperature to die. Continuous rain accompanied by wind and temperatures of around 8ºC is enough to kill an Angora left out in the open veld. Long-haired goats are not safe either. They easily float away in flood waters when caught in low-lying areas. Breeders and veld ram clubs have, of course, shown that it’s possible to breed finer-haired goats without sacrificing size, and that such a strategy can result in better reproduction rates. Whether lower-micron fleeces make goats more susceptible to cold is debatable.

Research done by the Agricultural Research Council 20 years ago compared goats from two studs and found that smaller, finer animals had a weaker constitution. This study suggested that some studs have hardier animals than others, but there is no practical method of quantifying this. The uncomfortable truth is that if farmers want to farm with Angoras, they can’t relax when goats are shorn. There is no alternative to making sure there is enough easily accessible shelter to protect all goats through the critical after-shearing period. Thick bush cuts out the wind and reduces the chill factor, but is no guarantee against disaster. Sturdy roofed goat sheds are best. Once the cold conditions have set in and the goats have lost enough blood glucose and body temperature, nothing short of a 100ml glucose solution injected intravenously can revive them, and then only if they are immediately carried through the mud and slush to a warmer place. Such steps are almost impossible in veld conditions. If animals are in poor condition, feed them chocolate mealies a week or so before the shearing date, and continue with this until it is safe to leave them out in the open. Unfortunately neither supplementary feeding nor the shedding of shorn goats helps to select adapted animals for extensive farming conditions.

Other methods that have been tried to reduce the Angora’s vulnerability to bad weather include dipping them in an oil emulsion straight after shearing, or fitting them with expensive, durable canvas coats. In parts of Texas, US, the shearers leave a strip of long hair along the goat’s spine, which is removed later when the danger period is over. Dipping them in an oil emulsion has been tested at Grootfontein Agricultural Research Institute, with inconclusive results. In one trial, treated goats maintained their body temperature for longer than untreated ones. The follow-up trial showed no difference. According to Dr Gretha Snyman of Grootfontein, it is difficult to simulate wet-weather field conditions.

The overriding problem is that Angora farming is risky and labour-intensive. Unless the price of the raw fibre remains at a high enough level to justify the risks and the effort required to keep the animals alive, it is likely that the exodus from the industry will continue. |fw