DEVELOPING A WEED & BRUSH CONTROL PROGRAM USING GOATS
By: “Gary Pfalzbot”
|June is GoatWorld’s Goats In Action Month
I have designated the month of June GoatWorld’s Goats In Action Month simply because in many parts of the Western U.S. (and the world abroad), this is the time of year when the potential for devastating wildfires is an ever-present threat. With many areas in severe drought conditions, one spark could be all it takes to touch off a fire that can destroy hundreds of thousands of acres and cost homeowners millions if not billions of dollars in lost property. Whether or not this spark is from a careless individual or an act of God, the danger is ever-present and should be anticipated and dealt with before it happens. Not only do you want to make sure your homeowner’s insurance has a fire policy, you may also want to look into pet health insurance to keep your pets healthy during these natural disasters.
For the past decade or more, the use of goats for controlling weedy and brushy areas that provide fuel for fire has greatly increased. Such control is called mitigation. There are many services and organizations that have been created that now provide such control services using goats and sheep. While overall, this is a very good and much needed type of service, one problem still exists in that there are not yet enough control methods established, and public awareness and acceptance of such a practice is not great.
Reluctance on the part of homeowners and county officials who could benefit from establishing and promoting such control programs need to be dealt with as much as the potential fire dangers in the form of weeds and brush. Unfortunately many of us are quick to react after the fact when we should instead be taking a proactive approach to those situations which could be avoided to begin with.
Basic Concerns of Using Goats for Brush Control
One such reason is that the goat owner feels that he or she does not have enough goats to make an impact.
While this may be partially true, whether one goat or fifty goats are working on a control area, a great deal of weeds are going to be consumed by the goat. It may take longer to control an area with fewer goats, but a measure of control is being taken that otherwise was not.
Another reason some people are reluctant to use their goats is because that they feel it takes a lot of time and work setting up an area as well as the possible constant supervision of their goats.
Yes, a certain amount of preparation is involved here, but if the operation is looked upon as a fun outing for both the goat owners and the goats, a certain amount of pleasure and fun can be had. Not all work has to be dull and boring!
From the perspective of the home or landowner where the goats would be used, they too have various reasons for not allowing goats to control their vegetation:
Perhaps the biggest reason is that they have heard that goats can be extremely destructive.
Agreed. Unsupervised goats are curious and often will destroy that vegetation which they are not wanted to control. For example, if the control area is located such that a garden is located nearby, uncontrolled goats are going to be apt to check out the garden and help themselves. Persons growing prize flowers may object as well when the goats instead decide to feast on their flowers instead of the brush they are supposed to eat. Again, the success of a control operation depends upon good planning, supervision and confinement practices.
Another issue with land and homeowners is liability.
Many are reluctant to allow goats on their property simply because they do not want to be responsible for any harm that could come to the goats or the goat owner and his or her crew of supervision. And as previously stated, reluctance on the part of the landowner is not only found in the potential damage the goats could do to property, but damage supervision could do as well.
The bottom line, landowners often do not like anyone on their property but themselves or friends even though the service could help them in the long run.
Overcoming Reluctance is a Key to Success
In my experience, certain goats are better suited for brush control than others. In practice and in theory, a person will want their hungriest goats ready for the job at a moments notice. The goat that is known to have a small appetite will be of very little use to the project, especially in situations where the control herd will be on the move. I have seen it quite often, one goat that eats a small amount and then lays down to chew its cud will adversely affect the rest of the herd to do the same. Likewise, goats that are somewhat wild to human presence and intervention will cause an otherwise calm herd to act erratic. Goats that are easily manageable are a large key to a successful operation without a lot of extra work on the part of the supervision.
I use several larger goats, several medium sized goats, and several smaller goats in any of my operations. As goats tend to browse, that is, move from spot to spot in search of food instead of eating in one spot, the larger goats tend to strip the higher weeds and brush while the smaller goats stick closer to their own level. Medium sized goats will also tend to stick to their own level as well. In short, you will have three areas of control; high, medium and low. What one goat won’t browse, chances are the next one will.
Once you have chosen a good set of goats for your potential project, you should concern yourself with how you will transport them to and from the control area. I’ve seen many ways this is accomplished and the easiest and most obvious method is in an enclosed trailer. However, not everyone can transport a moderate number of goats, say 20, to and from a location in one easy trip. If you don’t have a way to transport every goat all at once, it’s not a good idea to make several trips to and from a location. Find a trailer that will safely transport them all at once or reduce the number of goats used until you can afford this method.
I use a large 26′ enclosed stock trailer that has a center swing gate plus an overhead compartment (for supplies). This setup allows me to arrive at a location and let all the goats out at once. When it is time to go, a few goat treats to entice the goats back into the trailer is usually enough to do the trick. Should I need to separate any goats during the operation, I can simply close the center swing gate and isolate these goats from the rest of the herd. One tip here is to not overcrowd your goats during transport. A 26′ trailer easily holds about 50 goats ranging in size. Leave the problem child goats at home for a smooth transport.
I have learned over time that there are a few supplies that are nearly essential for a brush control operation, and some of these depend upon what part of the country you will be controlling. Snakes can be a problem in some areas, others not. If snakes are a possibility, snake bite kits for the goats (and yourself) are a must! Another must that I highly recommend is baking soda. Many of the weeds and brush your goats will be eating will be bitter and can cause digestive upset. Providing baking soda “free choice” nearby a source of water will help your goats from becoming easily bloated.
Speaking of water, I have been in a few situations where water was nowhere near thus requiring me to bring along enough water for all the goats over a 5 to 8 hour period. It is best to find out beforehand if you will or will not need to bring along water and a watering trough for your goats. Please don’t overlook this very important aspect as the more the goats eat, the more they will want to drink!
Some other items that I consider essential to an operation are:
Before You Put the Goats in Action…
And perhaps even more important than the basic contract itself…while walking the control area, make notes as to what type of plants and weeds exist. If you discover that the area to be controlled is overgrown with plants known to be toxic to goats, you may have to inform the property owner(s) that control using goats is out of the question. Familiarize yourself thoroughly with ALL toxic plants. I’ve heard of at least a few cases of good intentions turning deadly for the goats because the goat owner wasn’t aware that some plants can be mildly toxic if not fatal.
Once all the issues except price have been agreed upon, it’s up to you and the property owner(s) to arrive at a fair price for your work. While there is no set price for such operations, take into account all your expenses. My rule of thumb is that I charge by the hour instead of a set price. Typical hourly charges I have set are anywhere from $10 to $20 an hour, including a mileage fee (to and from a control site) of $.40 per mile. What you charge and set as your prices largely depends upon what you feel is fair and what the property owner(s) can agree to.
The Goats Are Ready But Have Nowhere To Go!
Your first task is getting a place to start. Please don’t make the mistake of setting up several jobs at once. Work on making your very first project as successful as possible. The modicum of success achieved at your first job will speak highly and provide a reference for your next control project.
You may want to start with an area that you know could benefit from immediate attention. Good places to start might be brushy roadsides or your neighbors jungle down the street. Depending upon where you live, you may want to go directly to the fire chief in your district and offer to do a small project (thus proving yourself and your goats capable of the task). The key here is to not take on too much at once. If you have only 10 goats and are looking at a control project over 50 acres, your goats are certainly not going to make a dent in that 50 acres. Small control locations are a good place to start and will probably end up in you receiving the call to return later to the same area for more service.
Homeowners Associations and Subdivisions are another great place to start but will require a bit of coaxing on your part. You need to “sell” the collective association on the benefits of what your goats can offer. As with many subdivisions, various covenants exist in which certain forms of livestock (yes, that means goats too!) are not allowed. In certain cases if you speak with the right person(s), you may be able to obtain a temporary permit. But please remember, when you are finally granted permission to control an area otherwise restricted by covenants, make sure you leave an impression that speaks highly of yourself, your practices as well as the behavior of your goats. Allow your goats to get out of hand in one of these areas and you could be liable for damage as well as being certain of never being able to enter that area again with goats.
Rent A Goat – Yes or No?
For the most part I am largely against renting out my goats in such a manner that I will not be there to constantly supervise them. I think that many of you goat owners that truly know goats can attest to the fact that goats are just to curious to leave in the care of someone who does not have knowledge of goats. Too many things can go wrong and it is just a chance I’d rather not take.
But I know that some of you will still feel intrigued by renting out a goat or two so I’d be very careful. Make sure of who you are renting to. The closest way I can equate this is in the same manner you’d pick out a baby sitter for your children. While goats are certainly not children, I think that many of goat owners consider them as our children. And I know none of us would purposely put our “children” in harms way.
Should you have questions after reading this article, please feel free to contact me at: [email protected]
|About the author: Gary Pfalzbot is the webmaster of GoatWorld. He has raised goats over the years, been involved with 4-H (as a young boy) and currently resides in Florissant, CO, situated within the Rocky Mountains. He and his wife Pam began raising a few breeds of goats, mainly precipitated for the control of Kudzu vine. They now primarily author the GoatWorld web site to continue to inform, educate, and promote the industry and those persons who are interested in goats.|