A contingent of ranchers and government officials from the Cayman Islands set foot in Hernando County last week to ponder buying, of all things, goats. They came to the right place. The owners of Soaring Spirit Ranch say they are the premier Florida breeder of South African Boer meat goats, and they back their claim with 115 grand championship ribbons from shows throughout the Southeast.
Jim and Tammy Lodato, 68 and 50, respectively, escaped the rat race of St. Petersburg in 1999, moving to an overgrown 15 acres just outside of Brooksville. They were advised to put a couple of goats on the property to eat down the weeds, briars and assorted ground cover.
"Just scrub goats they were," said Tammy. But the couple became enamored with the gentle scavengers.
They upgraded, buying their seed stock Boer does — a sweet-tempered breed, according to Tammy — from local breeder Nancy Huckabee.
It's been a whirlwind of buying, selling and showing ever since, on a mission to produce only the best. The Lodatos' herd of 60 females and three main herd sires includes offspring of a buck that sold at auction for $42,000. Their herd sires are by "ennobled" bucks, meaning they have achieved all championships possible and now can compete against other grand champions only.
The Boer breed, mainly white-bodied with red coating around the head and shoulders, is big and meaty, weaning off 3-month-old kids at up to 100 pounds. The farm's 3-year-old buck tipped the scales at 375 pounds. The females consistently birth twins, often triplets and sometimes quadruplets.
It's just what the Cayman Islanders were looking for: easy-care, fast-growing food for the Caribbean table, where goat is the staple meat.
Islander Ernest McFarlane, 52 and a goat producer for 10 years with a herd now of 37 does, came looking for new bloodlines, he said. He had come to Florida on a government-sponsored agricultural tour in 2005 and purchased 11 females for $10,000.
At Soaring Spirit Ranch, a percentage doe, meaning a Boer-milk goat cross, can be had for $350, Jim Lodato said. Show goats average $1,500, but can command as much as $4,000.
Money wasn't the purview for the Cayman tour leader, veterinarian Colin Wakelin. He said he was along to give advice, if asked, which often meant detailed professional scrutiny of such things as teats and mouths. Teat size and placement is critical to the kids' easy access to milk. Mouth formation affects the goats' ability to graze.
And Wakelin, as a practicing government veterinarian, also needed to check out quarantine facilities.
The Lodatos are on top of that. Theirs is the only farm in Hernando County that is USDA-certified as a quarantine station. That evolved several years ago when the local breeders sold breeding stock to farms in Aruba, Puerto Rico and the Caymans.
After the islanders' visit, Tammy Lodato said the sale of two bucks from their herd is pending.
The group also toured nearby Nature Walk Ranch, another goat-breeding establishment.
Hernando County Extension Service small farm specialist Stacy Strickland said he believes there are more goats in the county than federal statistics report. He wouldn't even quote them.
"So many (ranchers) will throw goats in with cattle to clean up pastures," Strickland said. And those appear not to be counted.
Tammy added: "There are a lot of backyard breeders." And their individual herds aren't large enough for reporting.
Speaking of cattle, the Cayman delegation was looking for beef breeding stock and farm machinery as well, having scheduled stops during the weeklong trip in Pasco, Polk, Alachua, Levy, Manatee and Okeechobee counties.
In Dade City, they inspected Charolais and Red Brangus cattle at J-Mack Farm, and Boer and Nubian-cross goats at Twin Hills Ranch.
Squiring the eight-member group for the trade mission, co-sponsored by the Florida Department of Agriculture, Zechariah D. Henderson, the agency's market development supervisor, said that by splitting up the group to accommodate individual interests, they visited 15 to 20 places.
Beth Gray can be reached at email@example.com.