IN the midst of the drought in 1991, Neill Leigo “wore rifles out” shooting rangeland goats to preserve feed and water for his domestic livestock.
The next year, he and wife Debra were installing hinged-joint fencing on the 25,940-hectare Allundy Station north of White Cliffs to capture and breed the animals.
Mr Leigo – a pioneer of the rangeland goat industry as it stands today in the Western Division of NSW – is representative of the way the sector has grown and developed.
For many families, capturing rangeland goats put food on the table during the drought when their country could no longer support domestic stock.
The animals were worth just $2 a head when Mr Leigo and his neighbour shot more than 2000 between them in 1991, however, an increase in demand – and subsequently, price – during the mid-1990s has resulted in an enormous increase in the industry.
Fast-forward to 2011-12 and the industry which was worth just $30 million a little more than a decade ago is now worth more than $120m.
Last financial year 1.63 million goats were slaughtered in Australia and 71,895 were exported live, mainly to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
The rangeland goat roams the vast expanses of the Western Division in mobs.
Some producers, like Mr Leigo, have installed hinged-joint fencing to contain and breed the animals. Others run sophisticated aerial operations capturing the almost-free source of income out of hills and national parks and yet more opportunistically muster them if they spot a mob on their land.
Going for growth
PETER Schuster has consulted to the goat industry in NSW since the late 1990s and said the growth had been gradual and driven by increased interest from the United States – the largest destination for Australian goat meat.
About three-quarters of the rangeland goats processed in Australia are sourced from an area stretching from about Hillston into South Australia and then north to Longreach in Queensland, taking in much of the NSW Western Division.
“What we have seen is a significant shift in the way people operate,” said Mr Schuster, who runs the Dubbo-based Schuster Consulting Group.
“It used to be purely opportunistic in the early and mid-’90s. We’ve seen producers become far more organised, we’ve seen them really start to fence country and control the asset they have in rangeland goats.
“They’re now taking the time to draft and they’re drafting off the animals which the market wants.”
Mr Schuster said the depot system – where a particular landholder will collate goats from the surrounding region, draft them into marketable lots and transport them to abattoirs – had guaranteed supply and allowed much of the growth in the industry.
“The ability to supply became recognised by the international market,” he said.
As producers become more savvy to breeding and selectively returning nannies to the wild, the carcase weight is increasing.
“Typically, your average goat is about a 35-kilogram liveweight animal and they’re selling at the moment for roughly $1/kg,” he said.
“Producers are hanging onto goats and selling them when they’re ready to sell rather than selling them when they’re too light. So we’ve seen an increase from about 14kg average dressed weight to 15-15.5kg (during the past decade)."
Mr Schuster is excited about the future of the industry, which he believes will only continue to grow further.
“As the world needs more protein, there is a ready-made supply,” he said.
“There is tremendous opportunity for goat producers, particularly those that can manage their costs and labour input,” Mr Schuster said.
“And that’s where the low-input rangeland systems are ideally placed. It is a low-value product, so it is very important to maximise that profit margin and keep costs to an absolute minimum.”
Fencing for profit
WHEN Mr Leigo started upgrading the fences on his property between Wanaaring and Tibooburra in the early 1990s, just one other landholder in the region had beaten him to the punch.
“We originally wanted to fence one paddock to hold goats until we sold them all. Then we found the goats were doing better than the sheep through the dry times, so we fenced a 4000ha paddock,” he said.
“We had a mob that used to work between here and the neighbouring property, there was probably 800 goats in that mob when I first took this property over (35 years ago).
“We didn’t worry about them, in the ‘70s and ‘80s they didn’t breed up. Then, in 1991, that mob had grown to probably 3000.
“They were taking water in the drought. We actually had rams perish because the goats were drinking the water.
“I just saw red, got my gun and started shooting. Two years later they were starting to become worth money.”
Twenty years later, almost all of the 100 kilometres of internal fencing - and 64km of boundaries - on Allundy Station is hinged-joint, the type which can be used to manage the rangeland goat.
Mr Leigo estimates there is now about 400,000ha of properties adjoining his which are fenced for goats.
“My neighbour started the ball rolling - he was the first to fence goats out in this country here and then myself and another neighbour to that property tacked onto it, and then another tacked onto that,” he said.
In 1999 the Leigos purchased the 15,311ha Paroowidgee Station, which adjoins “Allundy”.
Their business has drastically changed.
In the early ‘90s , at their peak, the Leigos were running a flock of about 5000 Merino ewes.
They now just have a total flock of 350 Merino ewes, and are considering selling even those. However, where the Merinos dropped off, the goats and other livestock have stepped in.
The couple has a herd of about 300 Brangus, Poll Hereford and Angus cattle, they turn off between 4500-5000 rangeland goats annually and run a flock of about 800 Damara ewes.
“I think the intention at the beginning of the drought (last decade) was to go back into Merinos. But there was no recovery in wool prices through the drought years and when it came to a decision about what to re-stock with post-drought, the goats had been returning us far more than sheep,” he said.
Not only do the goats provide a source of income, they are an excellent tool for managing the prolific woody weeds which infest parts of the Western Division.
“One paddock - which I wasn’t proud of for a while - well we actually flogged the hell out of it for about two years and then destocked it completely for about two years, and it’s now one of our most productive paddocks feed-wise,” he said.