by Marcia Stucki
It makes sense to think about other ways (besides giving milk) that goats might contribute on your homestead, farm, or ranch. Brush control is one of those ways, and offering brush goats for hire can bring in a little cash.
Goats are by nature browsers, meaning that they nibble a little bit of a lot of different plants, if given the opportunity. We can use that instinct to let goats help us with landscape management by training brush goats for hire.
The more knowledgeable you are about the plants, both native, and non-native, that commonly grow in your region, the more effectively and safely you’ll be able to use goats. What plants do you want to suppress? Which ones do you want to encourage? What other tools are you willing and able to use along with the goats? Do you have any poisonous plants for goats? Are you willing and able to feed and care for goats during the non-browsing winter months? Do you have a focused end goal in mind, or are you just looking for an “excuse” to own a couple of goats? (Note: either answer is okay!)
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In order to use goats for brush control, you’ll need the right goats, a way of moving them to the desired location, and a means to keep them there safely.
What kinds of goats make the best weeders? In general, the more intensively managed a goat breed has been during its history, the less suitable that breed will be for brush control. In other words, goats that have been fed concentrates for generations, and selected for heavy milk production or weight gain, will be less willing to go out and hustle for their own grub in a field. For this reason, Spanish goats (purebred or crosses) may be preferred for brush control over more specialized dairy or meat breeds. Browsing preferences are both inherited (from both doe and buck) and learned, especially from the doe, but also from herd mates, so it would be ideal (though not essential) to acquire “experienced” goats from a geographic area similar to you own.
In terms of brush control, browsing “experience” is more important than the age or gender of the goat. We have successfully used our does, including pregnant and nursing does, kids, wethers (neutered males), and breeding bucks for brush control. “Naïve” grazers turned out in a strange field may overeat potentially toxic plants. Or, if they are accustomed to being fed tubs of concentrated feed up by the barn, goats may just stand around looking hungry and forlorn, not recognizing invasive shrubbery as a meal.
For these reasons, experienced Spanish wethers would be the ideal choice when choosing brush goats for hire; they are less expensive than breeding stock and come in every color of the rainbow. They will enthusiastically pull down branches, stand on their hind legs, even climb into trees in pursuit of leaves.
If you already have goats which may be less than ideal for this use, you may still educate them into eating browse gradually. By providing some hay for goats in the browse area, you can make ingesting small amounts of unfamiliar plants safer for your goats.
Getting your goats to the area of property in which you want them to work requires that they be trained to follow you (rather than stopping to eat a favorite lilac bush!); in this case, bribery works! Set up tubs of grain or goat pellets in the area to be browsed ahead of time. Teach your goats that following you as you shake that can of grain means a reward at the end. You may want to carry a shepherd’s crook to keep them from getting too close to you in their enthusiasm. Once the grain is gone, they will quickly set to browsing, and this is a rewarding sight! On our farms, when we need to move goats greater distances, we use a golf cart, which the goats eagerly follow once they know the drill. (Yes, when you stop, a goat will climb on board, and yes, he will release the brake pedal, and yes, he will ride the cart down the hill without you, so be forewarned!)
We use temporary electric netting powered by solar fence chargers to keep the goats safely confined in the area we want browsed. These systems have revolutionized targeted grazing, and are worth an entire series of articles in themselves. Of course you will need to provide water and minerals and check the fence at least once a day while the goats are at work. Depending on your climate and the time of year, goats may need portable shelters or you may simply bring them back to the home place every night.
In our area (southwest Michigan), goats love to eat autumn olive, mutiflora rose, and honeysuckle, all of which are invasive scourges of formerly row-cropped old fields. Some aggressive browsers will kill small trees by eating off the bark (girdling). On our farms, they seem to favor the bark of wild apple trees and eastern red cedar. To keep a desirable tree safe from the goats, wrap the trunk loosely with wire fencing. The goats will trim the lower branches but will not be able to girdle it.
In severely and long-overgrown areas, weed-eating goats can do a great job of clearing the tangled understory so that you can see what you’re dealing with. However, once the lower branches have been stripped of leaves, that 50-year-old autumn olive shrub is still going to require a chainsaw for removal. The conventional protocol for invasive shrubs is to go back and dab the remaining stump with herbicide to prevent new sprouts. I’m currently experimenting with avoiding that step by putting the goats back on the land as the stumps start to re-sprout. I’m hoping that, with proper timing, I will be able to avoid herbicide, provide the goats with their favorite tender new shoots, and give myself the enjoyment of watching our experienced weeders hard at work.
Have you trained brush goats for hire or had someone else’s goats weed your property? We want to hear your experiences!
Marcia V. Stucki has lived on her 74-acre farm for more than 40 years, along with numerous horses, goats, chickens, dogs, and cats. Her sister and brother-in-law raise Spanish goats on their neighboring farm, Cedar Ponds. Herds of goats travel between the two farms (following a golf cart) on their various brush control assignments.
Originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.