Jerry Henry: The Man Who Stares at Goats

USACE Middle East District
Published Nov. 28, 2012

WINCHESTER, Va. – As a Supervisory Information Technology Specialist, Jerry Henry spends his workday surrounded by computers and other electronics. At the end of the day, however, he returns to his farm where he is surrounded by plants and animals.

When it comes to the farming lifestyle, Henry is no stranger to getting his hands dirty tending to the garden or to a variety of animals. Some of his animals are, well, special though. They faint. Since the early 1990s, Henry has bred, raised, and sold fainting goats. This breed is also called myotonic goats, Tennessee scare goats, nervous goats, or stiff-leg goats, and they are known for their tendency to seemingly pass out when startled.

But, it is not what it seems to be. Myotonia congenita, a hereditary disorder, causes the muscles to stiffen or freeze up, often making the animal collapse. The goats, however, never lose consciousness and take only a moment to recover. This condition only affects the muscles and does not involve the central nervous system or the brain.

As a child and throughout his life, he would travel with his family to visit his grandparents in Nazareth, India. While there, he would help tend to their farm by milking cows, collecting eggs or butchering chickens.

"I have always liked farming," said Henry. "When it came to be my turn to have a farm, I thought it would be nice to raise goats as a hobby."

He came upon fainting goats purely by accident, though. Henry initially thought he was getting a good deal on a few goats, but soon found out he was getting a unique deal.

"The guy had a very good price on the goats, and they looked like normal goats, but he wanted me to know they were fainting goats," said Henry. "I had to ask twice … what he meant. I thought that was the reason he was trying to get rid of them. He assured me it was a breed and gave me a demonstration. Sure enough, they all fell over when spooked."

Since Henry was purchasing the goats for meat, his first concern was whether or not they were safe to eat. With a little research, he learned that fainting goats are classified as a meat goat, rather than a dairy goat. Not only that, but pound-for-pound the breed yields more meat than a normal goat. Henry believes the meat is denser because their condition is like a constant workout for their muscles

He decided to keep a few of the goats from his first purchase and soon the fainting goats were easy to handle and easy going.

"The goats do not jump over or go through fences," said Henry. "They are not as aggressive, they are easy to catch, and they are more resistant to parasites and diseases."

Henry keeps a herd of about 20 to 25 goats throughout the year and sells them to customers who use the meat or keep them as pets. Most of his customer base was established by word of mouth, while others will drive by his farm and stop out of curiosity. Depending on the seasons, different cultural or religious groups will also purchase the goats. He has a few repeat customers who usually bring new customers each year.

Henry owns 52 acres of land and keeps 10 acres in fenced pasture. Along with goats, he also owns two steers and two heifers. The goats and cattle are kept in separate pastures, but Henry periodically switches them for rotational grazing to aid with crop management and to avoid infection.

Since he tries to keep everything on his farm organic, he uses no pesticides or added fertilizers and is proud to say that his animals are pasture raised. He keeps everything on his land on an organic cycle, with the animals' manure used for plants. Whatever vegetables are not eaten are fed back to the animals.

Henry also raises and sells his cage-free chickens and their eggs, makes his own hay, and has a fruit and vegetable garden. He grows tomatoes, beans, zucchinis, cucumbers, a variety of Indian vegetables and gourds, watermelons, eggplant, potatoes, okra, onions, peppers, and curry and apple trees.

Henry enjoys farming and said he will continue as long as he makes a profit. And, after nearly 20 years of raising fainting goats, they still entertain him with their unintentional antics.