Food and Culture in the South:
Meat Goat Showmanship at the State Fair
In part 1 of a 2 part series, a Durham boy prepares his meat goats for competition at the North Carolina State Fair. Part 2 will cover the action in the show ring.
On a drizzly, late August day in northern Durham, Joel Dahms, fifteen, introduces me to his meat goat, Kevin. We are standing outside of Kevin’s stall, where Joel is getting Kevin ready for grooming. He leads Kevin onto a stand, and guides his face into a head brace. Kevin’s long ears flop on either side. “He’s pretty chill because he does this a lot, gets up on this stand and I brush him,” Joel says.
Grooming is routine for Joel and Kevin, as are the exercises they go through to get Kevin in top meat goat form. They’re getting ready for the junior livestock competition at this year’s North Carolina State Fair. Preparations are going well, and it looks like Durham County has a good shot at glory in these two.
Joel has his eye on the showmanship competition. This is where the handler’s expertise is most important, and where Joel shines. He won the doe showmanship contest at last year’s State Fair, and he does well in this category around the Carolina Youth Meat Goat Circuit. There is a young lady from Lenoir County who does as well as Joel; one or the other has been circuit champion for the past several years.
Joel loves showmanship because of the in-show decisions a handler can make to impress the judge. A lot of technique goes into bracing—that is, holding the goat in ways that highlight certain muscle groups. I won’t disclose much of Joel’s strategy, but here is a taste: “When the judge walks behind me, I’m going to brace the goat harder because I want his butt to just pop.”
It is important for the butt to pop, and the muscle along the goat’s back—the loin, to bulge against the judge’s hand. These are the two cuts of meat most important to a meat goat’s value, and as Joel says, “they’re market animals, so the one with the most muscle should win.” This is especially crucial in the market competition, which is less about showmanship and more about meat.
Meat, you may be wondering, from a goat? Yes. While you won’t find goat on the menu at Chili’s right now, goat consumption in America has risen sharply since the 1990s. It’s a demographic thing, with greater numbers of people eating ethnic cuisines that include goat. No major religions see any problem with goat eating, and worldwide it’s the most widely consumed red meat.
There’s also a fringe of American eaters who are interested in goat because it’s healthy and sustainable. Goat meat has a higher protein-to-calorie ratio than pork or beef, and goats are easier on the land. The increased interest has made the U.S. a net importer of goat, almost all of it coming from Australia.
The meat-goat industry at home is growing in response. Much of it is new, and has a scrappy, small-business feel: Producer websites educate people on the benefits of eating goat, while apologizing for not having the infrastructure in place to get you a leg cut or a tenderloin in time for dinner.
Kevin is a great goat, but Joel doubts he’s meaty enough to win grand champion in the market competition: In late August, he weighs in at sixty-seven pounds. Joel plans to use Kevin for showmanship, but for market, he’ll use his new goat, which is genetically more likely to reach a brutish weight of around one hundred pounds. The new goat doesn’t have a name at this point, so Joel refers to him as “New Boy.”
Now, while Kevin stands calmly getting his neck brushed, his orange-brown eyes looking out at I don’t know what, New Boy bleats from inside his stall. Joel’s only had him for one week, and he says he hasn’t gotten too comfortable with people yet. New Boy is the product of generational unfriendliness: His mother didn’t trust people, and her babies grew up with the same attitude. But Joel has time to work with him.
Joel likes to listen to some music, sometimes Rascal Flatts, when he exercises his wethers (castrated males like Kevin and New Boy). He’s homeschooled, so he often comes out in the mornings before beginning his schoolwork and hooks the goats up to the chariot. Picture a platform that attaches to the back of a lawnmower. The goat’s front legs stand on the platform, its head goes into a brace, and the back legs walk behind as Joel drives. Great exercise for the legs, and, you know, the butt. “You train a goat to build muscle the way you would train a sprinter,” Joel says.
He leads Kevin back to his stall, and walks me over to meet the rest of the herd. There are about a dozen, and they cluster around the fence to look at us, bleating, twitching their tails. They’re Boer goats, a South African breed. Joel tells me their long, floppy ears are breed characteristics, as are their white bodies and brown hoods—and meatiness. I ask Joel if it’s a rule that you have to use Boer goats in competition. He says no, just “if you want to win.”
Most of the herd stands sociably near the fence. Many of them are does. Joel points out Nala, who helped him win the doe showmanship competition last year, and Nala’s mother, Comet. I am surprised at Comet’s size. She’s a big girl, swaybacked, with a ballooning abdomen that Joel says is a good characteristic: It brags on the breed’s ability to deliver multiple kids per year.
Some of Comet’s other kids are hanging around. One little doe named Big Red stands in front of us like she’s ready to talk, and would, but she just doesn’t have anything to say right now. Several goats in the herd started out as orphan babies the Dahms rescued from another farm. Joel’s mom is a veterinarian, so she knows how to do things like nurse struggling goats back to life.
Joel’s first experience with Boer goats came when he was eight years old. His mom had noticed that he loved to hold baby animals; when a client called her about some baby goats that needed to be bottle-fed, she volunteered Joel. Years later, Joel says he likes working with goats because they have personalities, more so than sheep, pigs, or cattle, and they’re more intelligent.
“You see them standing on a stump and you think, wow, that’s stupid. But they’re mountain goats. They like to climb, they like to get higher.” Joel says they prefer eating leaves to grass “by a whole lot,” and as you go down the Dahm’s driveway and look to your left, you can see a uniform line in the trees, identifying the reach of the tallest goat standing on his hind legs.
Joel wore sneakers to his first goat show, and didn’t even have a belt buckle. The Dahms were totally inexperienced, and they came from Durham County, an area not known for its goats. Joel learned to wear some nice boots or shoes to the show ring, and he has a belt buckle now. It says, “Carolina Youth Meat Goat Circuit Junior Grand Champion.”
This year, Joel moves up from the age group he came to dominate (rivaled only by the young lady from Lenoir County) and enters the senior division. He’ll be at the young end of a whole new class.
When I ask Joel what motivates him to keep going, he says, “I’m a competitive person. I like to do well.” He smiles when he says this, and I am happy that I’m fifteen years older and not into livestock because I think competing against Joel would be very scary.
October 8, 2012
Leading up to the fair, Joel and Kevin do well in the circuit shows. Kevin wins Best in Class (against goats of a similar weight) eight out of eight times. Things are looking good for the Fair until Kevin comes down with a staph infection and some of his hair falls out. Now, Joel isn’t sure about using Kevin for showmanship. He might use New Boy instead, whose name is now Nike, and who has grown quite large.
The livestock competition begins on opening day of the Fair, this Thursday, October 11. Joel has high hopes for his goats, but it all depends on what the judges think, and what happens in the show ring.