Are Breed Standards Backed Up By Facts?


Some of you may have noticed the ad and announcement last month for the production sale I am holding later this month (if you missed it last month, there is another ad in this issue). In the ad I promise that all animals will be inspected for cull defects prior to sale, and that no culls will be sold.

You would think that inspecting for cull defects would be easy enough. Maybe time consuming, but easy. Unfortunately, this task is not as easy as it probably should be (it is, however, every bit as time consuming as you might imagine).

Before inspecting you must know what you are looking for. Piece of cake, right? After all there are breed standards telling you what is and is not acceptable for a Boer goat.

Unfortunately, every Boer goat association has its own breed standards, and they are not identical. What is acceptable to some of our Boer goat associations is not acceptable to some of the others, and is definitely not acceptable to the South Africans, and vice versa. What a mess!

Reading all of these breed standards and trying to figure out which goats to cull got me to thinking. The objective of the breed standards is to maximize the economic value of the Boer Goat as a meat animal. Basically, in a commercial meat goat operation you want a fast growing goat with a high yielding carcass at slaughter, and the breed standards are supposed to help producers select those animals.

A cull defect in the standards should be a trait that hinders the productivity of the animal or reduces the quality of its carcass. If the trait will cause the animal and/or its offspring to be less productive or lower quality hanging on the rail, then the animals that exhibit that trait should be culled. If the trait has no adverse impact on production or carcass quality then why address it in the breed standard?

The main exception to that definition of a cull defect in the case of a breed standard are the appearance traits that have nothing to do with the productivity of the animal, but which define what a good example of the breed should look like.

After all something has to separate a Boer Goat appearance wise from goats of other breeds. These traits have little or no importance to a commercial producer who plans on crossing a fullblood Boer buck with a bunch of does of another breed, but would be of great importance to the show goat producer.

Whether these appearance traits should be considered a basis for culling or not probably depends on who you are marketing your product to. If you are selling show goats, then you should be culling goats that don't look 100% like a Boer Goat. On the other hand, if you are selling commercial goats it probably doesn't matter if your goats are abnormal colors, have abnormally shaped horns, have concave foreheads, etc.

The current array of breed standards has significant differences in both areas leading me to wonder exactly how much science and objective study went into the development of the standards dealing with the productive traits of the animals.

Even more disturbing is the disagreement between the standards over what a Boer Goat should look like. Pretty soon the Boer Goats raised by USBGA members could look nothing like the Boer Goats raised by ABGA members. As it stands now the ABGA National Champion could be shown the gate at a USBGA show, and vice versa, because the goat exhibits a trait that one association's standard views as a cull defect while the other's standard does not!

The definitive terms used in the breed standards are really helpful as well. The word "too" is frequently used. As in "back too concave" or "too short neck." The South African breed standard even admits that many aspects cannot be fully defined, and that in such cases the inspector or judge must use his discretion.

The breed standards all discuss conformation traits starting with the head and neck of the animal. For the most part everybody seems to agree on what a Boer Goat's head and neck should look like from an appearance standpoint. However, when you get to the most important trait in my opinion, the jaw alignment, there is disagreement over whether older animals can have an overbite or not.

I have always insisted on perfect jaw alignment, even from our older animals, and this seems to have paid off. After inspecting 155 of our animals I culled exactly one because of a poorly aligned jaw. I have inspected a lot of animals over the years, and have come to the conclusion that jaw alignment is a very heritable trait. If your breeders have poorly aligned jaws, so will your kid crop.

The unanswered question is how much of a hindrance is a poorly aligned jaw? I have very little experience in this area since I don't own any breeding animals that have an over- or under-bite. The one kid I culled was almost exactly the same weight at weaning as our average weaning weight, and he has a really severe over-bite. After weaning he continued gaining weight at an average rate. It makes one wonder if this is even something we should be looking at.

Intuitively you would think that if the animal's teeth don't hit the pad on its upper jaw that the animal would not be able to effectively feed. However, over the years I have checked the jaws of many of the top animals from the various performance tests while shopping for new sires, and many of the fastest gaining animals had bad jaw alignments making them culls according to the breed standards. I took a pass on them for that reason as well.

At the performance test those animals were on a diet of pellets which don't really require the goat to use their front teeth like would be required in a pasture environment. It would be interesting to see how these animals performed post-weaning in a pasture environment before deciding that poor jaw alignment is a cull defect.

Next the breed standards discuss forequarters, barrel, and hindquarters. Again, there seems to be general agreement about how the Boer Goat should look. I can't help but wonder how much impact some of these traits actually have on the productivity and/or carcass quality of the animal.

Is a goat that is pinched behind the shoulder really less productive or poorer quality on the rail than one that is not pinched? Is that even a heritable trait? Ditto for the other standards. Where is the data showing that loose shoulders, flat ribs, swayback, etc. actually have any sort of adverse impact on the productivity or carcass quality of the goats, and maybe more importantly that those traits will be passed on to their kids?

An even bigger question in my mind has always been whether a wide chest was even desirable. How does a wide chest benefit a goat? My goats don't run very much (except on those very rare occasions when a storm catches them out in the open and they have to run for cover), and I don't plan on entering any of them in the Tour De France anytime soon. Exactly how does all that heart and lung capacity benefit such an animal?

Sure they look more impressive with a big wide chest, but the purpose of the breed standards is to establish those traits that result in a fast-growing, high-yielding animal; not those that result in an impressive looking yard ornament for some rich guy's hobby farm.

I own probably the most extensively performance tested herd in the US, if not the world, and I can tell you that there is no correlation between chest width (or many of the other conformation traits) and growth rate in Boer Goats either in the pasture or at a formal performance test.

Where did these conformation requirements come from? Are they merely based on someone's theory that goats with those traits grow more quickly, are more fertile, etc.? If so, couldn't one just as easily theorize that goats with those traits are undesirable?

For instance, does a goat with a wide chest have anymore meat than one with a narrow chest? Not necessarily, but it does have a lot more heart, lungs, etc. In the end which goat is going to have a higher yield all other things being equal. The goat with the narrow chest, and smaller organs should have the higher yield since there will be less waste in the form of organs. If that is the case, than why should the breed standards encourage a broad chest?

Where is the data to support the desirability of these traits? Wouldn't it be easy enough to determine what effect they have on carcass yield and productivity?

The goat may be more aesthetically pleasing if it conforms to the breed standards, but I have been breeding these animals for over 7 years now, and I have found absolutely no link between many of the traits stressed by the breed standards, and the productivity of the animals. Some of our most productive animals wouldn't stand a chance in the showring, while some of our best conformed animals have been our least productive.

I'm basically inclined to chuck this whole section of the breed standards, and advise breeders to look at the results they obtain from their animals instead of their conformation to this section of the breed standards.

You can't tell me that a producer should cull a doe that weans twin 80 lb kids at 90 days of age off pasture with no supplement every year just because she has a narrow chest, swayback, slabsides, and cowhocks in favor of a perfectly conformed, beautiful doe that raises one 30 lb kid every year and requires supplement to pull that off. I have unfortunately seen both.

It seems to me that the breed associations should be putting a little more effort into determining which, if any, of the traits stressed or discriminated against in the breed standards actually have an impact on the performance of the Boer Goat in the pasture and/or at the slaughter house. Those traits that are irrelevant or contradictory to the objective of producing fast-growing, high-yielding goats should be scrapped.

Moving on to the reproductive organs, the differences between breed standards are pronounced. None of the breed standards agree on the teat conformation for a doe. One says, "a maximum of two functional teats on each side with a definite separation between teats."

Another says, "ideally, all goats should have a single functional teat on each half of the udder." It goes on to state that, "a split teat with two distinctly separated teats and openings with at least 50% of the body of a teat separated is permissible."

Finally, a third says, "a well-formed udder firmly attached with no more than two functional teats on a side. Permissible defects: If there is no indication that the teat is separating, but there are two milk openings, this is acceptable; double teats, the front 50% should be split."

It seems to me that at some point in the past the standard was that if a kid could nurse from it, the teat was acceptable. That remains my standard, so even though I culled 4 does from the sale because they met none of the standards above, I am keeping them because the fact is their kids have no problem nursing from their teats, and more importantly none of their offspring have teat defects.

I really have to question a standard that says a doe is a cull when the defect in question doesn't interfere with her ability to raise kids, and isn't even passed on to her offspring. None of the 4 does with teat cull defects are closely related, and none of their sisters, mothers, or daughters have defective teats. I'd be really curious to see if cloned animals have the same teat structure as the original animal, or if like the color pattern the number, shape and location of teats on clones is different than the original.

Then there is the standard for a buck's testicles. Again the standards can't agree on how large of a scrotal split is acceptable, 1 inch or 2 inch. Has anybody actually studied this to see if a split scrotum is a negative, positive or neutral factor? How do we know that bucks with a completely split scrotum aren't more fertile than those with an unsplit scrotum? If we don't know why are we culling based on this?

Finally, the most laughable standard of all, coloration. Again none of the standards agree. This trait obviously has nothing to do with the productivity of the animal or the quality of the carcass, but the red head and white body is the signature of the Boer. All of the standards say that a solid white or solid black Boer is unacceptable, while some find a solid red, tan or brown goat acceptable. They even disagree on how much red a red-headed Boer must have on its head, ears, and neck.

I have a small number of solid white fullblood Boers, and I would love to know why they would be discriminated against in the showring when a solid red goat would not. Could anything be more arbitrary?

The breed associations that demand the traditional red-head, white-body color pattern at least have tradition to fall back on. If you are going to disregard tradition then why not accept any color pattern?

Our solid white goats have 100% pigmentation not only of the skin on their hairless areas, but the skin under their hair as well, and so do their offspring.

The South African breed standard states that, "the major part of the body of the goat must be white to make it conspicuous and facilitate the rounding up of goats in dense terrain. A pigmented skin on the hairless parts, e.g. under the tail, round the eyelids and mouth etc., is absolutely essential, because it offers resistance to sunburn which may result in cancer." Obviously a solid white goat with pigmented skin comes closer to meeting the original breed standard than a solid red goat.

After reviewing the various Boer Goat breed standards I had to decide on what criteria to use to cull animals in preparation for our sale. Ultimately I decided that any animals that did not meet the ABGA breed standards for jaw alignment and reproductive organs would be culled since those are the areas that are most difficult for buyers to evaluate during the brief viewing period of a production sale, and the standards are pretty objective and straight-forward for those traits.

I decided to let the buyers use their own judgment about whether the goats were too this or that for their taste in terms of their conformation and coloration since there doesn't appear to be any objective clearly defined standards for many of those traits.

Finally, I leave it to the Boer Goat breed associations to revise their breed standards so that no breeder will be faced with having to decide between culling a herd to conform with arbitrarily determined appearance traits which theoretically will result in more productive animals, versus retaining animals that have proven themselves to be more productive in the real world even though they may not conform exactly to the breed standard.

The many animals that do not conform to the breed standards and yet are very productive, and the disagreements between breed standards damage the credibility of the standards and call into question their validity. The way to restore that credibility is to actually study which traits are predictive of superior performance, revise the standards to incorporate only those traits, and finally standardize the breed standards.

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This page updated 08/12/03