Wes Green bales about 25,000 small squares of mixed hay, orchardgrass and alfalfa that feed some of the hottest hay niche markets in the U.S. Horses, goats, sheep and even ostriches enjoy hay from Green's Atlanta, IL, fields.

Although horses are the biggest market he supplies, at least 20% of his hay goes to two sheep owners and five goat producers. The sheep market is steady, while the goat niche has shown significant growth. Both markets can thank, in part, the influx of ethnic groups that desire and demand lamb, mutton or goat meat for consumption or religious observances, says Susan Schoenian.

“The most important consumer of goat and lamb in the U.S. is Muslim,” says Schoenian, a sheep and goat specialist with the University of Maryland. “Part of their culture or religion is to sacrifice sheep or goats, two for a boy and one for a girl,” she adds.

Since World War II, the majority of U.S. immigrants have come from Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian, African or other countries where goat meat, lamb and mutton are staples in their diet, Schoenian says.

According to Iowa State University's Ag Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC), the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population are the 39.9 million Hispanics who want suckling kids or larger goats for barbecuing. But Muslims consume more lamb and goat per capita, Schoenian says.

“There is no such thing as the ethnic market,” she adds. “It's many different markets that have many preferences for how big a goat they want, what kind of body condition and how that goat is to be slaughtered.”

While Hispanics generally want kids, Jamaicans prefer mature billy goat meat chopped up and curried. Muslims must have meat that is Halal, or according to their scriptures, and includes humane slaughter and blessings said during processing. Jews require their meat to be processed in a kosher manner, and West Africans desire goats not skinned, but processed with their hair burned off.

Yet consumer demand isn't the only reason for the growth in the U.S. goat meat market, says Schoenian. “Ten years ago, the government got rid of the wool incentive program. When that income was taken from mohair producers in Texas, they started looking at other things.”

The Boer goat, imported to Texas from South Africa, “probably had as much influence on an industry as the Holstein breed had on dairy,” Schoenian says.

She calls the Boer goat, with a big white body, a red head and floppy ears, the “first true meat goat in the U.S.” As of last month, USDA reported a total of 1.97 million meat goats in the U.S. Of that, 1.6 million were for breeding and 351,000 were for market.

Schoenian, however, is skeptical of such statistics. “In a state like Maryland, a lot of lambs and goats are killed on the farm and they never become statistics. But the trends are accurate. The meat goat industry has become one of the fastest-growing ag industries and probably the fastest-growing livestock industry.”

And that means a growing market for hay growers.

Green, for example, grows what his customers want. “It's different strokes for different folks,” he says. The racetrack he sells to takes pure alfalfa while other horse owners want mixed hay and even grass hay. One of his sheep producers takes a little alfalfa and more mixed hay while the other takes straight alfalfa. Some of his alfalfa is ground and mixed with corn, supplements and molasses for ostriches his family raises for a nearby restaurant.

“The goat people are pretty much straight alfalfa, but a few will take mixed hay,” he says.

Small ruminants like sheep and goats need hay that's higher in quality than what Green probably feeds his beef cows, but lower than what goes to his horse customers, says Schoenian.

“We're talking about animals that have two to three babies, so the nutritional needs are much higher for milk production. I'd say a doe or ewe with triplets is like feeding a dairy cow.

“Obviously, the better-quality the hay, the less supplementation you need, and with poorer-quality hay, you simply have to make up for what they aren't getting through grain.”

Lamb Market Is Steady; Ostrich Market Is Down

While the goat meat market shows significant growth, sheep numbers have decreased from a 56-million-head high point in 1942 to 2.84 million in 2004. Yet lamb consumption remains steady, according to a recent report by Iowa State University's Ag Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC).

“Nearly all lamb produced in the U.S. is sold in supermarkets and restaurants,” the AgMRC report adds. As with goat meat, lamb consumption is heavier on the East and West Coasts, where there are higher populations of Greeks, Hispanics, Middle Easterners and Native Americans. More than 40% of U.S. lamb and mutton consumption is supplied by Australian and New Zealand imports.

Sheep producers who target ethnic groups gain marketing diversity, says Susan Schoenian, a sheep and goat specialist with the University of Maryland. “Ethnic markets take animals of all sizes, from 20 lbs to a mature adult animal. It's a producer's challenge to see what's available in his area, target it, and produce animals needed for that market.”

Wes and Martha Green, and his parents, Harold and Georgia, found a Peoria, IL, restaurant that will take all the ostrich meat they can raise. Wes Green, who also runs a beef and commercial hay operation near Atlanta, IL, says the restaurant is buying about 400 lbs, or four birds, a month. He feeds them homegrown hay with corn.

The ostrich market has had its ups, but mostly downs, Green says. “We got started with those in 1995, just at the peak, when everybody else was getting into ostriches. But in the last year prices have gone to just about nothing.

“We came across the restaurant and now we can't meet demand,” he adds.