Home » Grazing Glamour: Angora Goats Produce High-End Wool, Soil Health

Grazing Glamour: Angora Goats Produce High-End Wool, Soil Health

By Tamara Scully

Glen Cauffman is no stranger to farming. A tenth generation Pennsylvania farmer, he’s been growing commodity corn and soybeans — along with alfalfa for hay — for decades, and continues to do so today. But he’s not your typical commodity grower.

Always interested in standing out from the crowd, he implemented 100-percent, continuous no-till practices on The Glen Cauffman Farm more than three decades ago.

“I’m very passionate about conservation and I have been for a long, long time,” Cauffman says. “It began in my youth. My grandfather and my father…were proud of the conservation practices that they had on the farm.”

He’s created wetlands on the farm, to provide wildlife habitat and take marginal land out of production. And cover crops, crop rotation, contour planting, contour strips and no-till practices have helped the farm to become one of four 2018 Leopold Conservation Award finalists. The farm again one of the finalists for the 2019 award. Twenty acres of erosion-prone land are planted in native prairie grass, and enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

And then there are the Angora goats.

Glen Cauffman
Glen Cauffman and his Angora goats.

Since 2005, Angora goats populate his 20 acres of pasture, which now sprout a diverse array of annual and perennial forages. Fields of unusual crops exist in harmony alongside the acres of corn and soybeans, and these are also grazed by the goats, or baled as stored forages. The goats assist in the improvement of the soils, and they provide a natural, renewable resource — their fiber — which Cauffman hopes can help to reinvigorate the dying textile industry in the United States.

Angora goats were selected not only for their fiber, but because of their interaction with the land, and they are helping Cauffman reach his goal of being recognized for not only the products he’s producing, but for how those products are grown and raised. His vision is to diversify the farm, grow products that aren’t commodities, and to do so with his overlying conservation and stewardship goals in mind.

After becoming frustrated with commodity production, where each farm’s crop is treated as “equal to everyone else’s,” Cauffman longed to develop a value-added and branded premium product that came from animals that were raised in a fashion that did the most environmental good for the farm and greater watershed. He’s chosen to make “sunlight and water into products for man,” he said, and is using the herd of 300 Angora goats to do so.

His farm brand, Pure American Naturals, uses the natural fiber and the remaining remnants of the American textile industry to craft high-quality mohair products. Naturopathic veterinarian and small farmer, Dr. Judith Shoemaker, is also a partner in the business. The culls from The Glen Cauffman Farm go to her first, for care and perhaps rehabilitation, before they are designated to go to slaughter at the end of their natural 13 -15 year lifespan.

Growing Soil, Forage and Hair

Cauffman’s overarching conservation goal is to protect the soil from erosion, prevent runoff, sequester carbon, enhance the soil microbiome, create fertility organically and prevent water pollution. Water from the farm runs clear and tests clean, which he credits to many common-sense practices that all to often aren’t a part of conventional farming today.

But it goes deeper than building the soil on his land. Cauffman wants to protect the greater watershed from damage, and promotes common sense ways of doing just that. One of Cauffman’s pet peeves involves roadway shoulders and ditches, which, he said, “are a significant contributor to nutrients and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay.”

He keeps a sod buffer around the perimeter of the farm, instead of planting his fields up to the roadside. He grows sod in roadside ditches, to capture sediment and filter water. He uses contour planting, and contour strips, along with the standard rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat. Center strips of alfalfa capture runoff from the row crops, and prevent erosion from the hills and slopes.

“It’s more than aesthetics,” he said of these practices, which also make the farm look nice and tended. By not planting crops up to the edge of the field — by replacing practices that might get the most yield but do so at the expense of the soil, and by adopting practices that have a positive impact throughout the farm — even conventional farmers can prevent erosion and reduce runoff.

The herd of 300 Angora goats is the central element around which many of Cauffman’s conservation goals pivot. The goats graze in paddocks contoured on the hillside. There are 19 paddocks on 20 pasture acres, all of which are grazed high. The goats are never allowed to graze below six inches, as that is where parasite larvae live. Plus, grazing close to the ground impedes forage regrowth.

“Angora goats don’t like to graze close,” Cauffman said, and are “constantly on the move,” which is another reason these animals fit so well into his conservation plans. The also enjoy a wide variety of forage crops.

Cauffman promotes forage diversity within each paddock, as well as diversity between paddocks, allowing for continual high-quality grazing. The nineteen or more forages regularly grown in the pastures and fields add biodiversity to the farm both above and below ground. The forages are selected based upon their fertility needs, growing season, nutrient content, digestibility and sometimes their medicinal properties.

“These animals need a lot of protein” in order to make hair, Cauffman explains. “I need that high protein and high digestibility because these animals are pumping out hair.”

A minimum of 20 percent of the diet needs to come from protein, and having more will enhance the amount of hair they can make. To get the protein needed, and to improve his soils, Cauffman uses as wide range of annuals both within his perennial pasture system and grown in fields by themselves.

The plants that have the qualities he needs include: silphium perfoliatum, a native plant also known as cup plant; sericea lespedeza; sunn hemp; Kura and other clovers: black medic: forage turnip; birdsfoot trefoil; along with typical Northeast pasture grasses such as timothy, orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass and reed canarygrass.

The biggest management challenge in diverse pastures is knowing when to remove the animals, and when to let them graze, to allow the best growth for all of the plants in the mix, Cauffman said. For example, when lespedeza is used in a pasture mix, he needs to graze the animals early, but remove them in time for the lespedeza — a late maturing crop — to grow unimpeded. While managing a diverse array of crop mixes can provide non-chemical ways to effectively terminate crops and allow others to grow in their place, Cauffman at times does terminate crops with chemical sprays.

Angora goats grazing
The forages are selected based upon their fertility needs, growing season, nutrient content, digestibility and sometimes their medicinal properties.

He feels certain tools, such as chemical sprays, need to be used judiciously for the greater good of the overall conservation plan. Some plants, such as lespedeza, which bring benefits to both the animals and the soil can be somewhat invasive, and using sprays to prevent their spread outside of the field is a way to allow their benefits while protecting against negative consequences.

Chemicals are never used on the lands grazed by the goats, and only used very selectively on crop fields. The corn and soybeans are grown with herbicides, but not with prophylactic applications.

“They are a tool that we have. Like all tools, we use them sparingly, because they cost and we don’t want to handle chemicals any more than we have to,” Cauffman said.

With each paddock having a different forage blend and each blend having different ingredients, pasture management is a multi-pronged challenge. He’s balancing the nutritional needs of the goats with the growing needs of the forages and the fertility needs of the soil. He does make hay with forages as needed, and alfalfa hay is also available as a stored feed.

It’s difficult to manage diversity, but doing so correctly can mean that fertility happens naturally, and organic matter continues to build.

“I’m always trying in that diverse sward of plants to have something in there that’s high protein. That tends to be legumes,” he said. And, as the legumes also fix the nitrogen for the grasses, they serve the dual purpose of keeping the protein content of the forage above 20 percent, and improving pasture health.

The goats typically switch paddocks every week, depending on paddock size, season and forage availability. Throughout the year, grazing groups can change. Young does and bucks graze separately, and in the summer does graze with their kids. Dry and unbred groups graze together. The groups can be combined, too, at some points during the year.

The goats are on pasture year-round, a requirement of Cauffman’s Animal Welfare Approved certification. Shelters are available in the pastures. Water is available with some above-ground pipes going to various fields, but most paddocks share a common waterer accessible in the aisle. In other paddocks, the stream serves as the watering hole.

While Cauffman does work with National Resources Conservation Service, and often goes beyond their requirement, he doesn’t always agree with their practices. For example, Angora goats don’t go into water, as do cattle. They don’t like their feet wet, and will avoid the stream running through the farm, except to stand alongside it and drink. Using the goats in the grass-covered and tree-lined riparian buffers won’t degrade the water, Cauffman said, but NRCS requires they be fenced out, which he believes is counter-productive and short sighted.

The goats now kid on pasture, since 2018, and he’s had excellent results. They kid seasonally in May, on very clean pastures free from parasite loads.

“We have really liked kidding on pasture. They actually bond better than they did in the bonding boxes,” Cauffman says.

Keeping the chaff out of the fleece is an issue when feeding hay, and Cauffman has designed a square bale feeder to reduce this concern. Cauffman is going to begin a bale-grazing program this winter, using round bales and moving them around the paddocks. Aside from chaff concerns, another challenge is the inevitable trampled forage. But that forage can feed the array of soil microbes, building organic matter.

“Angora goats don’t eat anything stepped on,” Cauffman said. “It’s always a challenge not to have waste.”

Grains are fed for a few weeks before breeding season, in a weight-gaining diet to enhance fertility and conception rates. Close to parturition, during the last four weeks of pregnancy, grains are fed again. The goats naturally stop milking at two or three months postpartum, and grains are fed up until that time.

The major health issue in the goats is internal parasites. Cauffman does use purchased feed with medication for coccidia. He deworms in chutes at two months of age. Some of the forage plants — birdsfoot trefoil, sericea lespedeza and cup plant — are regarded as having anti-parasitic properties as well. Guinea hens and peacocks roaming with the flock help, too, by eating the eggs. Genetics are involved as well. He is effectively decreasing parasite loads by selectively breeding goats less susceptible to parasitic disease.

“I’m developing families that have resistance and resilience to parasites,” he said.

Natural Hair Products

Cauffman is also breeding his herd for premium fiber. Mohair is a natural product that is strong and durable. Its quality is measured in its fineness and length, as well as other select parameters. Hair less than 23 microns is the finest grade.

Angora goats will produce the finest hair with a minimal protein content of 20 percent in their ration. Higher protein rations lead to finer hair production and yield. Their hair also gets coarser as they age. But when they are really old, it gets fine again. So keeping the herd healthy and focusing on longevity leads to more quality mohair production.

A herd of Angora goats
Cauffman’s goats are bred for premium fibers.

“We have some adults that are still grading less than 23 microns,” Cauffman said. “We have been breeding for this fineness. Out of 300 we breed only the best. Last year we bred seventy.”

Although he wants to keep the herd at its current size, young lambs are not culled. They produce the valuable finely textured hair. And, until they are three or four years old, the actual quality of their adult coat can’t be determined. So all young stock are potential breeding stock, too. About 25 or 30 of the four year-olds will be culled from the herd each season. Meat from the goats is sold, and the entire carcass, from head to hide, is returned to the farm and used without waste.

Cauffman is making his name known not only for excellence in conservation, but for the premium quality fiber products produced from his mohair, and sold under his Pure American Naturals brand. He sells some mohair to spinners, and some to the fashion industry.

Most of the yarn used by Pure American Naturals is spun in Pennsylvania, and most products they sell are made in mills in the Northeast region, from their mohair and from the Merino wool Cauffman purchases from select farms. Wool is used in combination with mohair to make a more versatile fiber blend. The farm he currently purchases from is in Texas, and meets both the wool quality and conservation parameters of Pure American Naturals.

“I would like to see some more producers producing this high-quality wool,” Cauffman states. “We need to revive interest in Mohair products.”

Pure American Naturals offers socks, yarn, hand warmers and hats, all of which are sold directly to the public. Educating consumers about the value of natural, ecologically produced fiber products is built in to the brand’s mission.

So is traceability. All of their products are trackable throughout the entire supply chain, and their story is attached to any product originating on the farm, for use by the mills that craft that their products, or anyone else along their blockchain, Cauffman explained. He believes that this transparency is necessary for his — or any — small farm to survive.

“We can’t compete on price,” so need to find consumers with their quality, and their story, Cauffman says. “Value-added requires marketing and distribution. I believe the future of agriculture is in the marketing beyond the farm gate. That is a skill for that the next generation of farmers is going to have to learn.”

The Glen Cauffman Farm and Pure American Naturals: 545 Centerville Rd, Millerstown, PA 17062 717-580-1416. www.pureamericannaturals.com