2018 Orientation: Jadyn Watson-Fisher

Fainting goats studied for their meat potential
by Jadyn Watson-Fisher

Video: TSU’s Emily Hayes and Dexter cattle

NASHVILLE, Tenn.– Google the term “fainting goat” and the search results will show goats falling over in response to being scared by people. These are myotonic goats, and while their stress response can be entertaining, they are worth more to the U.S. agricultural industry than a few clicks on YouTube might suggest.

Kids look through the wire fence on the TSU farm. (Photo: Jadyn Watson-Fisher)

Researchers at Tennessee State University, led by Professor Richard Browning of the College of Agriculture’s department of agricultural and environmental sciences, have been studying myotonic goats since 2002. With the births of kids in May, they had a new group to analyze.

“We are looking at meat quality, meat production, health traits of the goat and how they perform in this environment,” said Lauren Stevens, TSU graduate research assistant. “Tennessee is a subtropical environment, so we’re comparing the myotonic breeds to some of the other breeds we have on campus,”  she said.

The researchers are studying how quickly a goat can gain the proper amount of weight required for slaughter, and the qualities — such as the amount of fat versus muscle in a particular cut — that make the meat appealing to human palates.

Demand for goat meat has risen steadily since the 1990s, when the U.S. saw an increase in the number of legal immigrants, due to an amendment to an immigration law that allowed for an additional 200,000 people, up from 500,000, to enter the country.

In 2017, the U.S. imported $218 million worth of goat meat from Australia, according to a Bloomberg News report. Muslims and Hispanics have been the largest consumers of goat meat.

“Because the demand is so high for goat meat, producers are kind of getting into this market, looking to make some money,” said Stevens, 24. “Goat meat (consumption) is on the rise, basically for two reasons. One is the increased immigrant population from the Middle East. Also, goat meat is considered a healthy alternative to red meat. It’s lower in fat, high in iron.”

Graduate research assistant Emily Hayes surveys the TSU farm and animals from her truck. (Photo: Jadyn Watson-Fisher)

The genetic characteristics of myotonic goats may make their meat particularly desirable. Their condition, Myotonia congenita, means their muscles undergo prolonged contraction when the animals are startled or stressed. “The transitory stiffness associated with these contractions can cause the goat to fall down,” according to The Livestock Conservancy.

The goats’ unusual muscle-contraction trait makes their meat valuable because the tensing increases muscle mass without decreasing the meat quality, said Emily Hayes, 27, a graduate research assistant in the animal physiology laboratory at TSU’s Institute of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Research.

“They’re kind of like the bulldog of the goat,” said Hayes, who leads the research team with Browning. “They’re very short and stout, and that muscle-building is what makes them valued as a meat goat.”

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