How do you turn noxious weeds into cash? Buy cashmere goats!
A nomad's ATM, they turn the sharpest thorns and most noxious weeds into the softest cashmere.
And they're cute! Here's a photo of my son investigating a herd we met on the Mongolian Steppe...
As you can see, cashmere goats come in shades of black, gray, brown and white. In Mongolia, nomads usually maintain mixed herds. Goats outnumber people by four to one, and roam almost as wildlife - usually keeping within a few kilometers of their owner's ger. We saw no one looking after the herd pictured above.
Goats grow cashmere as an undercoat - providing nomads with their main source of cash income. But a goat's usefulness does not stop there. Mongolians milk goats throughout the summer producing various dairy products. Excess milk is churned and dried into a kind of nomads'candy for use in the winter.
Come October, the bucks straddle the does which then carry pregnancies through the winter. In Winter Mongolian goats see their only shelter of the year - usually a 3-sided barn. A small luxury when pregnant in extreme subzero temperatures!
The kids drop in April and the goats get a month's maternity before dehairing begins in May and June.
A goat grows two types of hair. Cashmere comes from the fine, downy, and soft undercoat which begins growing on the longest day of the year. Mongolian herders collect the cashmere in Spring by combing it out.
Wholesale buyers then pay for the down based on weight and truck it off to the cashmere factories...
The factories process the cashmere and turn it into the garments which ship to a store near you. Want to take a look at the finished products? Check out the website of my favorite Mongolian supplier - Pure Cashmere Boutique.
Google cashmere goat, and you'll find they all look different - they're not a breed, but a type. Any goat producing cashmere in saleable quantities can join the club.
Some breeds are better known than others, and most consider Mongolian goats the best. Countries as far afield as Australia purchase breeding stock from Mongolia.
But attempts by Australia and others to breed Mongolian goats have failed to produce cashmere of the same value.
Cashmere gets its value from length, width and texture - attributes determined by DNA. But as Australian and American farmers have discovered, a goat's environment plays an even bigger role.
Mongolian Cashmere Secret #1 - the colder the weather (and Mongolian weather can drop to MINUS 50 Celsius!), and the longer the days, the longer the goat's hair. Mongolian goats grow fiber between 40-47 mm long, producing between 250-300 grams of cashmere each season.
Mongolian Cashmere Secret #2 - the thinner the goat, the finer the cashmere, and believe me - there ain't any fat goats in the Gobi! When a Mongolian goat travels abroad it turns into a well-fed matron and stops producing fiber thin enough to qualify as cashmere.
In the twentieth century, Soviet scientists crossbred Mongolian goats with a Russian variety. The result? An ugly outsized goat with coarse hair. Fortunately once the Russians withdrew, nature took care of the rest. The crossbred goats needed more than the available forage and disappeared from the gene pool.
But in Inner Mongolia, the Chinese have devoted much time to producing new breeds. Inner Mongolian cashmere goats now divide into five strains: the Alasan (Alashanzuoqi), Arbus and Erlangshan breeds grow the finest cashmere. Whilst the Hanshan and Wuzhumuqin grow rougher cashmere in greater quantity.
If you live in America try contacting the ECA. But remember, goats need the companionship of other goats - you will not be buying one, but a herd!