By Paul Hamby – Goats, including Alpine goats, are believed to be the first animal domesticated by man. Bones of goats have been found in caves along with evidence of human inhabitation of those caves. One of the goat remains had evidence of a healed broken leg that could have only healed under the protection of a human. Scientists determined she would have died in the wild without human intervention. Her remains have been carbon dated to 12,000–15,000 years ago. These goats were the Persian (middle eastern) goat “Pashang.”
Some Pashang migrated to the Alps Mountains. It is likely that some of them went to the Alps along with their human companions and other wild herds moved there. Our present day Alpine goats descend from the Pashang goat, also known as the Bezoar goat. Alpines are found throughout the Alps Mountains, their namesake, in Europe. Over thousands of years, natural selection developed the Alpine goat breed with superior agility to survive on steep mountain slopes. They developed a perfect sense of balance. Alpine goats are also one of the best goats for milk, as you’ll learn as we continue to learn the history of the Alpine goat breed.
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Alpine goats maintained their ability to survive in arid regions. European goat herders started selective breeding for milk production and favorite colors. The adaptability of Alpine goats, sense of balance, and personality made them good candidates for voyages. Early voyages were made feasible by taking along goats for milk and meat. The early sea captains often left a pair of goats on islands along their shipping routes. On return voyages, they could stop and catch a meal or a fresh source of milk.
Today Alpine goats can be found thriving in nearly every climate and the goat is the most common farm animal found around the world. When the first settlers came to America, they brought along their milk goats. Captain John Smith and Lord Delaware brought goats here. A 1630 census of Jamestown lists goats as one of their most valuable assets. Swiss breeds along with Spanish and Austrian goats were brought to America from 1590s to 1700. The Austrian and Spanish breeds were similar to the Swiss breeds though they tended to be smaller. Cross breeding produced a common American goat. In 1915 a wild Alpine-type goat was taken from the Guadeloupe Islands. She produced 1,600 lbs. of milk in 310 days.
A turning point for goats in America came in 1904. Carl Hagenbeck imported two Schwarzwald Alpine goats from the Black Forest of Germany. They were displayed at the World’s Fair in St. Louis at Hagenbeck’s Wild Animal Paradise. After the fair they were sold and shipped to Maryland. Their history is unknown. Frenchman Joseph Crepin and Oscar Dufresne of Canada, imported a group of Alpines to Canada and California. The American Milk Goat Record Association (now known as the American Dairy Goat Association—ADGA) was started in 1904. That same year the official spelling of “milch” changed to “milk” in the U.S.
From 1904 to 1922, 160 Saanens were imported to the United States. From 1893 to 1941, 190 Toggenburgs were imported. Common American goats were then crossed with the superior Toggenburg and Saanen goats. The breeding-up program was very successful. In 1921, Irmagarde Richards speculated that the success of the breeding-up program was due to common American goats having a similar European ancestry to the Purebred Swiss goats. Since the resulting animals often didn’t match the color requirements for Saanens and Toggenburgs, the animals became grade Alpines.
French Alpine Goats
In 1922, Dr. Charles P. Delangle with the aid of Mrs. Mary E. Rock, her brother Dr. Charles O. Fairbanks, Frenchman Joseph Crepin (author of La Chevre in 1918), and others imported the first documented group of French Alpines: 18 does and three bucks. These goats came from France where the Alpine is the most popular breed. The French had bred their version of the Alpine to a consistent size and very productive animal.
All purebred Alpines in the United States descend from this importation. One of the imported does, owned by Mary Rock, lived until December 1933. In 1942 Corl Leach, longtime editor of the Dairy Goat Journal describes French Alpines: “Color varies greatly and ranges from pure white through various shades and tones of fawn, gray, piebald, and brown to black.” One of the great things about raising Alpines is the anticipation of the color markings of the new kids. There was not a single doe of the cou blanc variety in the 1922 importation. In France there was no breed recognized separately and distinctly, as “French Alpine.” Dr. DeLangle considered them as of a general “Alpine race.”
French Alpine is an American name. In France today Alpines are called “Alpine polychrome” meaning of many colors. Dr. Delangle’s herd name was “Alpine Goat Dairy” but it was short lived. He was in poor health and had conflicts with a number of goat breeders including the goat association Board of Directors. On August 20, 1923 he was expelled from the American Milk Goat Record Association. He sold and gave away his herd shortly after the importation and apparently left the world of goats.
Rock Alpine Goats
Rock Alpines were created by crossbreeding goats of the 1904 and 1922 importations. In 1904, through Frenchman Joseph Crepin, an importation of Alpines including Saanens and Toggs was brought to Canada. Mary E. Rock of California purchased some of these because of the illness of her little daughter. One doe from the 1904 importation was a cou blanc named Molly Crepin. She is the only imported cou blanc doe on record. She then acquired French Alpines from the 1922 importation.
Rock Alpine goats were the result of breeding these animals together without any other outside genetics. Rock Alpines were the finest of their time and regularly won at shows and milking competitions. The Saanens used were either Sables or color carriers. One of her Saanen does was named Damfino. She was a black and white Saanen. When a friend asked, “How come the color?” she replied “Damfino” and that became the doe’s name. Mrs. Rock’s herd name was “Little Hill.” She was an avid writer and contributed articles to popular goat publications for many years.
The American Milk Goat Record Association recognized Rock Alpines as a breed in 1931. AGS (American Goat Society) recognized Rock Alpines. Rock Alpines flourished until World War II. None remain today but their excellent genetics have been absorbed into the American Alpine herd. British Alpines look like black and white Toggs. They also resemble the Grison breed of Switzerland. British Alpines were first bred in England after Sedgemere Faith, a Sundgau doe was exported to England from the Paris Zoo in 1903.
The British Alpine Section of the English Herd Book was opened in 1925. Allan Rogers imported British Alpines to America in the 1950s. In America, British Alpines are no longer registered separately, but as Sundgau in the French and American Alpine herdbooks. Sundgau is the name for the hilly geographic region near the French/German/Swiss border along the Rhine River.
Swiss Alpine Goats
Swiss Alpines, now called Oberhasli, have a warm red-brown coat with black trimmings along the muzzle, face, back, and belly. This coloring is known as chamoisee for Alpines. The Oberhasli come from the Brienzer region of Switzerland near Bern. The first Oberhasli were imported into the United States in the early 1900s. Three Swiss Alpines (called “Guggisberger” in a 1945 article in The Goat World) came with Fred Stucker’s 1906 importation and August Bonjean’s 1920 importation, but their descendants were not kept pure. Purebred Oberhasli descend from four does and one buck imported in 1936 by Dr. H.O. Pence of Kansas City, Missouri and identified as Swiss Alpines.
Three of the four does had been bred to different bucks while still in Switzerland. Purebred descendants were registered as Swiss Alpines, while the crossbreeds were registered as American Alpines. In 1941, Dr. Pence sold his Swiss Alpines in two divided groups. One of the groups was eventually lost in the 1950s while the other ended up in California, owned by Esther Oman. For the next 30 years she was almost the only breeder preserving the Swiss Alpine in the United States.
The pedigree of most purebred Oberhasli can be traced to Mrs. Oman’s herd. In 1968 Oberhasli breeders first asked ADGA for recognition as a distinct breed with a separate herdbook. In 1979 purebred Oberhasli were separated into their own herdbook by ADGA and recognized as a separate breed. In 1980 an American Oberhasli herdbook was created and these animals were pulled from the Alpine herdbook. No doubt Oberhasli genetics are still a part of the American Alpine gene pool.
American Alpine Goats
American Alpine goats are an American original. This breed is the result of crossbreeding with French or American Alpines. This program has brought in genetics from several breeds and gives the American Alpine one of the largest genetic pools of any goat breed in America. The results have been dramatic with American Alpines setting production records, winning at shows and being a generally larger animal than the original French version. American Alpines represent the success of hybrid vigor.
In 1906 Mrs. Edward Roby of Chicago worked to create an “American Goat” that would help to provide a safe tuberculosis-free milk supply for the children of Chicago. These were a cross of common American goats and imported Swiss genetics. Her crossbred goats could have been American Alpine goats had there been a registry at that time.
Today’s Alpine goats are a versatile utility animal. Great milkers for both those who want to learn how to raise goats in your backyard and commercial dairies, Alpines produce a high volume of milk. They have the ability to produce over a period of one to three years between freshenings or milk through. This produces valuable year round milk and reduces cost by not breeding every year. Alpine milk has a high cheese yield because of good butterfat and protein content. They produce well on pasture or in dry-lotted hay fed conditions. They are known for being exceptionally hardy, curious, and friendly.
In 2007 ADGA registered a total of 5,480 Alpines making them the second most popular breed in America. (There were 9,606 Nubians and 4,201 LaManchas registered with ADGA in 2007.) This was down from 8,343 registered in 1990. Alpines continue be a breed of choice for many producers, from backyard hobbyists, to show enthusiasts, to commercial dairymen.
The all-time ADGA production record for an Alpine was set in 1982 by Donnie’s Pride Lois A177455P with 6,416 lbs. milk and 309/4.8 butterfat. This doe was bred by Donald Wallace, New York. In 2007 the ADGA Alpine milk production leader was Bethel MUR Rhapsody Ronda, owned and bred by Mark and Gwen Hostetler, Iowa. This doe produced 4,400 lbs. of milk in 297 days, with 102 lbs. butterfat.
While Alpine does make excellent dairy producers, bucks make good meat animals and will often gain weight as fast as the meat breeds. Alpine wethers also make excellent pack goats. They tend to be larger, stronger, and healthier than many other goat breeds. They train easily, bond with their keepers, and retain their guard dog-like instinct out on the trail. An experienced Alpine pack goat can be amazingly trail wise. He will remember a trail he has been on and can lead the pack through snow and fog. Alpine pack goats thrive in most climates and they tolerate heat better than Saanens and Toggs. The beauty of Alpine colors make them appealing to the pack goat buyer.
Originally published in the March/April 2008 issue of Dairy Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.