Livestock Research for Rural Development 26 (9) 2014 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

A new breeding pathway to improve meat goats

G J Batten

Caprinex Enterprises Limited PO Box 102, Brightwater, Tasman, New Zealand 7051


Meat goats are a critical part of economic, social and community life in many countries, so improving their production is important. To avoid the many constraints that have hindered historical breed improvement projects in these countries, the KikonuiŽ maternal breed ( has been developed from a Kiko base since 2003 to focus on the universal factors of survival, adaptability, and superior reproductive and growth rates.

To achieve these objectives and to produce an improved breed, population genetics policies with large scale selection in commercial populations together with open nucleus breeding has been used to exploit favourable New Zealand farming conditions. This process has produced a breed which has great potential in many other suitable environments throughout the world.

Key words: genetic improvement, New Zealand, Pacific islands


Goats are an integral part of economic and social life in especially developing countries. The best animal is one fitting breeding objectives to farm environments as confirmed by Bett et al (2009a) and other authorities. But these vary as goats must be versatile and able to adapt to semi-tropical, humid, cold and mountain conditions, between and even within the same country (Arineitwe and Ndyomugyeni 2013). The range of challenges is immense and is one reason for slowing positive progress. However, the steps to finding superior animals have been highlighted in several recent reviews by Ahuya et al (2005), Berhanu et al (2012), Bett et al (2012), Kosgey et al (2005), Ogola and Kosgey (2012) and Shrestha and Fahmy (2005; 2007a).

Goats provide milk especially for children, for meat and skins for home consumption and sale income, as well as blood and manure. Goats also can have a role in tradition, social status, social payments, rituals and ceremonies, bride price, insurance, status display, dispute compensation and as a mobile bank (Gebreyesus et al 2013; Berhanu et al 2012; Ogola and Kosgey 2012; Arineitwe and Ndyomugyeni 2013). Despite these various roles these multi-purpose animals are commonly referred to as meat goats.

Demands on meat goats are increasing concurrently, with increased population and in some cases with improved living and nutritional standards (Shrestha and Fahmy 2007a). Improving goat production has been an on-going challenge at both academic, institutional, village, and individual farmer levels, and a major pathway is through breeding. Benefits from genetic improvement that add value to goat meat end-products could achieve sustainable development and reach a wider population of the poor and needy (Shrestha and Fahmy 2005). The special need to breed for robustness to ensure efficient use of resources in the face of increasing challenges from climate change is identified by Kahi et al (2012). Unfortunately food insecurity, adverse environments, disease, adverse climates, shortage of food and or water continues to inhibit progress of goat genetic improvement programmes.

There are other difficulties for farmers. Small holders have a lack of networks and structures to motivate and influence the adoption of genetic programmes to improve their stock. Communities are sedentary, semi-nomadic or nomadic, needing different goat traits such as walking ability, coping with limited water sources and predators, as well as a range of husbandry and veterinary inputs. Most herds are small, minimising selection pressure. In addition, lack of animal identification and breeding records, low breeder literacy and uncontrolled breeding from animals mingling at common water sources can limit genetic progress and lead to poor performance (Bett et al 2012; Duguma et al 2010; Gebreyesus et al 2013).

Background to the Kikonui Project to deal with current limitations

Logically, efficient and sustainable meat goat genetic improvement programmes are part of a coordinated approach to improve farmer production and profit, but there are many difficulties in developing countries. There have been examples where producer trait preferences and genotype x environmental interactions, and producers’ goat traits have not been taken into account (Bett et al 2011; Duguma et al 2010; Ahuya et al 2005). Shrestha and Fahmy (2005) and Pattie (1991) identified many goat producers’ lack of necessary skills and knowledge and subsequent limitations on genetic improvements.

The huge variability among world goat genetic resources provides the best opportunity to accelerate genetic improvement of economically important traits of meat goats, and suggests that cross-breeding and the formation of composite populations are breeding techniques that can offer one of the most practical means for rapid and permanent improvement. Most efforts have been based on introducing exotic genotypes, usually European, and cross breeding to do so. However, there have been frequent difficulties with adaptability and even incompatibility of the crossbreeds to local breeding objectives and management (Kosgey et al 2005; Gebreyesus et al 2013; Kahi et al 2012; Ogola and Kosgey 2012). The review by Bett et al (2009a) notes the realities of failure in such programmes in Africa.

A literature review reporting experiences with introducing exotic breeds to indigenous breeds with the objective of improving them has several lessons (Kosgey 2007; Bett et al 2009a,b; Bett et al 2011). Exotic breeds introduced primarily for improved milk (European dairy breeds), or meat production (Boer, Jamnapari) have often not handled their new environment well. Boer goats are regularly referred to in the farming media as the best meat goats in the world, and even public media echoes well-publicised research information and successful promotion by breeders, especially from South Africa and more recently USA and Australia. However, the presented information such as by Lu (2002) was often not directly relevant to farming conditions in developing countries. Pedigree is the main parameter used for selection, with production and profitability given less importance. Western animal evaluation systems have also influenced standards and promotion, with small hobby-sized herds, shows and competitions along with non-commercial traits dominating breeding decisions. Some of these qualities do not transfer to developing countries to meet their farmers’ needs. Extensive research over six years comparing Boer, Kiko, and Spanish does and bucks and their reciprocal crosses under normal commercial conditions in a subtropical environment at Tennessee State University, has not demonstrated Boer superiority or stayability, cumulative kid performance, carcass yield, reproductive and health traits (Browning and Leite-Browning 2011; Browning et al 2012; Pellerin and Browning 2012). They also concluded the need to reassess the often used description of Boer breed as superior among goats for meat production in relation to carcass yield.

Usually cross breeding produces faster benefits than selection within breeds (Kosgey et al 2005) but requires careful consideration of indigenous attributes and environmental stresses. This contrasts with the commonly asserted opinion that there is more scope for improvement within a breed than between breeds that requires identification and selective breeding often not possible in developing countries. However cross-breeding to achieve the best animal is limited by available healthy breeding stock, ability to depend on acquired knowledge, and fiscal constraints to purchase unrelated animals, cross-border import difficulties, bureaucratic and health limitations, selection amongst multi-traits for those that are most important, limitations to the structure of improvement programmes and few objective evaluations of the introduced animals. The breed x nutrition interaction emphasising the role of an adequate diet is reviewed by Shrestha and Fahmy (2005), and requires careful consideration of environmental stresses as identified by Kosgey and Okeyo 2007).

Some authorities consider that centralised cross-breeding schemes to improve goat herds need to be institutional or community based, but these require extensive studies under a range of feeding and management conditions according to Acharya (1988) and Pattie (1991), and are limited by adequate resources and staff. Such an approach failed in Kenya in the 1960-1980s (Ahuya et al 2005) due to technical, logistical and financial constraints. However, the technique explained by Falconer (1981) of reducing environmental variation to increase heritability using satellite herds, and grouping doe kid progeny, and improving reproductive rate to increase selection pressure, can help to overcome the fluctuating variations between generations needed to demonstrate any accuracy and improvement.

Breeding objectives must be easy to measure (Shrestha and Fahmy 2007b), heritable and limited in number (Gebreyesus 2013; Solkner et al 1998). Despite the complexity of environments, products and management systems there is some general commonality of selection traits of reproductive rate, maternal ability, survival and resistance to disease, growth rate, and feed conversion to improve productivity and production efficiency as identified by Acharya (1988) and Devendra and Burns (1983.). Adaptability and indeed survival under changing climatic and feed conditions is a basic requirement (Ogola and Kosgey 2012), but usually less attention is paid to meat quality (Shrestha and Fahmy 2007b). But that review concludes that in the absence of genetic evaluation of performance and morphological characteristics, breeding programmes can use live-weight of kids adjusted for sex in relation to dam live weight as a simple measures of production performance.

Methods used in Kikonui Project

The Kikonui Project addresses these current problems and opportunities, based on previous successful results. New Zealand has provided an ideal platform for the establishment and development of the Project to produce a high producing, adaptable, efficient meat goat, and needing only low feed, husbandry and management inputs to produce at a sustainable level.

The New Zealand goat farming environment

 New Zealand is a small country located between 34°and 47°S latitude with a range of micro-climates from dry Mediterranean to humid sub-tropical. Of the 26.8 million hectares of New Zealand, only 55% are farmed, the balance being unsuitable with 10% mountainous. Of the farmed area, three quarters is in permanent pasture and only one-third can be cultivated. The unfarmed area of bush and mountains, and contour and access of some less intensively farmed grassland and tussock land is ideal for rapid establishment and maintenance of a feral goat herd now estimated at about 300,000 comprising escaped animals and liberations since first European 1800s settlement.

New Zealand has a completely unsubsidised agricultural industry, so farm profit must be maximised by minimising costs. Highly efficient, low cost farming systems have evolved. The commercial structure of New Zealand farms, with generally a cooperative farmer attitude and existing networks with common language, ideals, objectives and status, and large scale units, is a sound base. Farmers are used to maintaining records and able to control matings to ensure genetic improvement. Any meat goat farming must operate under those constraints and advantages.

New Zealand goat farming sources were European dairy breeds from initial coastal sealers’ camps, goats kept for milk on early sailing ships carrying colonists, and liberated goats loaded for meat in Asian and South African ports for consumption en route. The population is also made up of angora goats from failed fibre farming attempts in the 1920s, and significant liberations of cashmere and Angora goats in the 1980s following a downturn in goat farming interest and investment at that time. These animals have interbred, surviving natural selection of the varied environments and also deliberate destruction policies to preserve native vegetation, and capture on the margins for slaughter for export meat.

The current New Zealand farmed population is based on captured feral goats with a diverse genetic base after subsequent selection. Introduction from the late 1990s of Boer genetics from an initial limited and not particularly productive base population has been successful, but only in suitable selected localities. New Zealand also has both large and small herds of dairy goats, predominantly Saanen, but also including British Alpine, Toggenberg and Anglo-Nubian breeds.

New Zealand goats are farmed to control pasture weeds such as thistles (Cirsium spp.) and brush weeds such as introduced gorse (Ulex europus) and blackberry (Rubus spp.) and native manuka (Leptospermum spp.), for controlling excess grass growth and enhancing clover in mixed pasture and for export meat production. Herds are generally large by the standards of developing countries.

Kikonui Project breeding strategies

The Kikonui Project breeding strategies cannot be integrated into similar activities in developing countries for various reasons. Small herd sizes coupled with poor animal identification and lack of performance and pedigree recording along with low literacy inhibits a population-based breeding programme (Bett et al 2012; Shrestha and Fahmy 2005; Duguma, et al 2010). Indigenous goat populations tend to be closely bred in very small herds, so inbreeding is a negative factor constantly raised in the literature (Bett et al 2012).

The breeding programme exploits population genetics quoted by Shrestha and Fahmy (2005) with principles based on using large numbers of individuals to identify important commercial traits, and then using appropriate statistical techniques to exploit their distribution and frequency within the population. They use an open nucleus with satellite herds introducing selected females, concentrating on only a few important traits with efficiency rankings, and mating best to best. The wide genetic diversity found in large commercial goat populations is measured with comparable data to increase selection pressure on the economically important traits, so superior animals can then be used with rapid generation turnover to increase genetic gain in the total population. The satellite herd structure of the Kikonui Project is able to maintain genetic diversity without inbreeding risk.

The open nucleus structure used, with females selected from both nucleus and commercial herds is an alternative to more traditional pyramid structure of nucleus, multiplier and commercial herds, or group breeding schemes. An open nucleus allows greater selection pressure along the dams’ pathway to produce an increased rate of genetic gain (James 1978). However an open nucleus has heavy operational costs, high organisational demands, can lack permanence, sustainability and possible genotype x environmental interactions (Zumbach and Peters 2002). Never-the-less, it is supported by the constant variance theory (Mueller and James 1983), and has proved successful in the Kikonui Project and previously with Kiko development in New Zealand. The open nucleus breeding system, where the selected central population is relatively small is endorsed in the evaluation of various breeding plans by Herold et al (2012), and if all recording and evaluation is done in the nucleus, it is not needed in the rest of the population according to Kosgey et al (2005).

The Project has used strategic and limited introduction of dairy breeds to the large and widespread genetic base of feral goats. That was distilled through adversity under challenging environment and nutritional conditions over many generations, and subsequently during Project management that has provided a sound epigenetic base for developing a high producing goat able to perform efficiently and economically.


KikonuiŽ goats are based on Kiko goats that were the practical example of genetic routes starting to be featured in the scientific literature in the last twenty years of the last century (Shrestha and Fahmy 2005). A population established with as broad a genetic base as possible, can provide sufficient genetic variation and performance traits to sustain accelerated genetic response to selection for many generations (Shrestha and Fahmy 2007b), as has been shown within the New Zealand feral goat population.

Kiko goats were reported in a paper to the III International Goat Conference, Brazil 1987 setting out the results of initial breeding activities to capitalise on the diverse genetic base of the New Zealand feral goat herd using a population genetics based programme (Batten 1987). That programme was expanded and continued into the mid 1990s where the resulting improved stock were targeted especially for New Zealand hill country farmers, but their adaptability and superiority in diverse developing country environments was proven by successful exports of breeding stock to Nepal, Western Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.

For example, imported Kiko goats settled well in Western Samoa, acclimatised to 8°S latitude, quickly adapting to local tropical vegetation and grew well. Kilduff (1984) reported early Kiko kid growth rate was 190 g/d (bucks) and 145 g/d (does); maiden Kiko does kidded at 214% compared with imported Fijian does at 130%. The UN Regional Livestock Coordinator evaluation in the South Pacific endorsed early Kiko suitability and superiority (Hussain 1985), following imports to Samoa, Tonga and Niue. In Papua New Guinea, F1 Kiko progeny performed at superior levels to local goats (Saleu1990).

In 1994 most of the central Kiko breeding herd was exported to USA where it formed the basis of a recognised goat breed, now well established through a variety of climatic and management environments within North America (Peischel 2007). It is incorrectly shown in the Shrestha and Fahmy (2007a) review (Table 7) as having two foundation breeds, when it is based on a diverse genetic feral goat base with the later limited influence of various dairy breeds. Unfortunately the USA industry literature records some misinformation about Kiko goats with both breeding and performance errors, following misguided promotion into the USA market. Such information should be treated with caution. Since that time, USA emphasis has adopted parentage-based breeding programmes ignoring the previously successful population genetics based programme that focused on performance under challenging conditions. However, a few breeders have selected for production and profit, and the breed has demonstrated superiority in more commercial situations.

Extensive evaluation at Tennessee State University (Browning and Leite-Browning 2011; Browning et al 2012; Pellerin and Browning 2012) in a subtropical environment under commercial conditions with substantial animal numbers of goats shows that Kiko goats outperformed Boer goats as a maternal breed, with greater reproductive rate, kid growth rates, less foot and parasite problems, and higher meat yield. Kiko goats also outperformed F1 Boer crosses with Spanish goats (Nguluma et al 2013).

In 2003 the Kikonui Project started with the remainder of the Kiko central herd and retained premier semen in New Zealand. The central herd was then modified with the use of outside dairy-bred bucks to improve milk production as had been the initial practice with the Kiko Programme. The breed has been continually influenced with doe kid contributions from up to 11 cooperating satellite herds totalling over 1000 does of varying genetics in different environments throughout New Zealand, mated to KikonuiŽ bucks. While subsequent generations were interbred, outside influence continued through the open nucleus system.

Obvious structural faults had been eliminated in base goats and subsequent introductions early in the Project using independent culling levels. In practice does with any feet, teeth, udder or teat problems or parasite susceptibility were able to be assessed by end-product efficiency. For example foot problems meant that goats could not walk far enough on hill country for adequate intake to feed kids properly. Poor mothers were not able to grow or feed good twins.

All doe kid twins from central and satellite herds were farmed together, and the best performing included in the central herd for assessment as maiden does. The best individuals under a regime of minimum inputs and costs were selected for further breeding to mirror low input systems practiced on New Zealand hill country farms and in developing countries, and the difficult environmental and nutrition conditions that challenge all animals. So universal selection parameters were limited to twinning, growth rate, temperament and survivability. Does that continued to successfully rear the fastest growing twins continued in the herd. The best performing bucks were used in a policy of mating best to best in both central and satellite herds, with little regard to parentage.

Results and discussion

Evaluation and nucleus doe and buck selection for annual breeding decisions were based on production efficiency assessed as sex-adjusted kid litter weight as a percentage of doe weight at weaning. By 2013-14 one third of the central herd was over 110% efficiency and the herd mean was 87.7%. Table 1 shows the immediate benefit of using premier semen on the original Kiko does in the increased efficiency of maiden does in 2004-5. It also shows the success of progressively developing very superior does within the herd as the basis for continued improvement. No data was recorded from 2006 to 2009 as experimental breeding activities with variously sourced animal introductions rendered analysis meaningless. Data was lost through computer malfunction in 2011-12. Annual results were also influenced by variable environmental restrictions of adverse weather and nutritional conditions of unshepherded, unsupplemented and unhoused management.

Table 1: Changes in central herd doe % efficiency 2004-5 to 2013-14









Original does







Maiden does







Mixed age does










Mixed age does







Mixed age does








Mixed age does







Mixed age does






The KikonuiŽ breeding programme has been able to overcome the structural genetic limitations of closely related small herds by its wide genetic diversity and scale, and satellite herd structure. It has developed a maternal breed within the constraints of challenging conditions, with marginal forage, low input, no predators and high survival. KikonuiŽ goats are able to perform under a range of conditions to overcome the limitations identified by Arinetwe et al (2013) and others in developing countries, the difficulty of maintaining a three-breed cross as in the review by Shrestha and Fahmy (2007a), and by capitalising on the benefit which they identified of crossbred bucks.

The very high animal health status of New Zealand, being an isolated island nation, enables exports to most countries in the world. Availability of KikonuiŽ genetic material is facilitated by modern technologies as emphasised by Kahi et al (2012). Frozen semen and cervical insemination can be incorporated in breeding programmes as operator training and qualification is not difficult. Frozen embryos with laparoscopic implantation requires veterinary expertise but can be implemented at village level. New Zealand pioneered goat MOET techniques in the 1980s and has developed huge expertise.

Experience with introductions of Kiko and other breeds to local populations indicates that the recommended role would be as an improver breed, probably as a topcross over F1 crossbred stock. This will enable important local characteristics to be retained. It will offer the most practical route of KikonuiŽ introduction through frozen semen on locally identified superior does. Establishment of a central KikonuiŽ doe herd through direct import or through embryos would later provide bucks where artificial insemination is not practical.



Dr. D C Dalton, Hamilton for editorial input and advice, and cooperating farmers.


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Received 16 January 2014; Accepted 18 August 2014; Published 5 September 2014

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