Weed Whackers

For habitat restoration and invasives control on sensitive sites, goats are a natural.

By Katharine Logan

Three hundred goats help Caltrans restore habitat at the foot of Big Sur. Photo by Katherine Brown.

How often does it happen that when a landscape maintenance crew starts mowing brush or clearing weeds, office workers leave their desks and head outside to watch, grandparents make an outing of it with their grandkids, neighbors sit out on their front porches where they can see, or people driving down a highway stop to find out more? If you said “never,” you don’t know goats.

Among the many advantages of landscape management with goats, making people smile is by no means the least. Because of their agility, sociability, and curiosity, “everyone loves the goats,” says Mike Canaday, a rancher whose California company, Living Systems Land Management, hires out some 9,000 of them to help with site restoration and wildfire prevention throughout the state.

Steep, overgrown slopes that heavy equipment would erode and humans would be hard-pressed to work safely are home turf to these nimble creatures. They practically tiptoe over the terrain, and their hooves aerate the soil. A herd, tribe, or trip (as a group of goats is variously called) of about 300 animals can clear—and fertilize in neat, pellet form—roughly an acre a day, depending on how dense the vegetation is, how hungry the goats are, how many are pregnant, and what the weather’s like. As browsers, who eat high-growing fodder such as leaves and twigs (as opposed to grazers, who eat low-growing stuff like grass), goats have a voracious appetite for overgrown underbrush and invasive species: Even thistles, stinging nettles, and poison ivy make tasty fare. In targeted or prescribed grazing (interchangeable terms for the use of grazing and/or browsing animals to achieve land management objectives), a herd’s first visit strips the plants, stressing them, and a return visit after the plants have recovered typically puts them down for the count. Fewer than one in five seeds—of which goats are especially fond—make it through the ruminants’ four stomachs, according to a study involving leafy spurge, and those that do make it don’t have much gumption left in them. Across the country, governments, public agencies, and property owners are increasingly using targeted goat grazing as an alternative to chemical and mechanical methods of clearing land.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) recently used goats to help with habitat restoration on a sensitive site. At the foot of Big Sur, just north of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, rising sea levels and storm surge were eroding a three-mile stretch of the scenic Highway 1; at one pinch point, waves were washing over the road. In realigning the highway 450 feet inland, Caltrans took care to minimize the project’s impact on the spectacular setting, a pristine habitat of coastal prairie, freshwater wetland, and coastal scrub that’s home to more than a dozen rare or sensitive plants and animals, including six federally protected species. The project encompassed the landform grading and restoration of its 120-acre footprint, including the decommissioned roadbed, to blend with the surrounding landscape: saving and replacing four different types of topsoil (containing the native seed bank and the natural mycorrhiza), replanting 90 acres of adjacent wetlands with square-foot sod pieces cut from the area between the old and the new roadbeds, and collecting native seeds to further support the restoration.

Their predilection for leaves and twigs makes goats hell on brush. Photo by Sarah Close.

For the first year after construction was complete (in 2017), all went well. But in year two, invasive bur clover, wild radish, mustard, and thistle moved in. Everywhere. “We didn’t know why or where from, but we needed a plan to control it,” says Katherine Brown, a landscape architect with Caltrans, “and because we were adjacent to so much wetland, right there by the ocean, we needed a nontraditional method.”

Brown reviewed a variety of practices for invasive-plant management. Mulching worked out to be too expensive; solarizing depended on plastics, which she wanted to avoid; and mowing came with a big carbon footprint. A colleague in the San Francisco Bay Area had used targeted grazing for weed abatement and fire prevention (goats can remove heavy fuel loads in areas where brush is too thick for humans to penetrate), so Brown did the math for the Piedras Blancas restoration. “Goat grazing was much less of a cost, had a lower carbon footprint, and was faster to implement than the alternatives,” she says.

In July 2019, and again in February 2020, 300 of Canaday’s Boer and Boer-cross goats arrived, complete with their own herder, who lived on-site with her herd dog for the duration of the grazing. No sooner had the goats got to work than people piled out of a minivan in a nearby parking lot, wanting to know all about them. “I wasn’t sure how the public was going to respond, but they were enthusiastic that Caltrans is using a sustainable approach to removing nonnative plants,” Brown says. “And the goats are cute—really cute.”

Rescued goats ready to earn their keep in Rhode Island. Photo by Hobbs Brook Real Estate.

Targeted grazing significantly reduced the need for mowing, spraying, and weed whacking at Piedras Blancas (although Caltrans did use some of those methods when plans for a third grazing got sidetracked). Now, two years after the second grazing and a drill seeding of native seed, “I’ve heard from our biologist that it looks really good out there,” Brown says. She is developing guidelines and a contract template to make it easier for colleagues to integrate targeted grazing into projects from the outset, rather than as a change order, as she did. “It’s an innovative, nature-based method that helps improve overall plant, water, and pollinator health, as well as reducing carbon footprint,” she says. “It was a wonderful partnership.”

Such partnerships are on the verge of becoming impossible in California, however, because of the way the state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) is interpreting a new agricultural labor overtime regulation. Although goatherds live on-site, near the animals they’re responsible for, they aren’t actually working 24 hours a day; they work a regular workweek—albeit with irregular hours—and are typically paid monthly on that basis. In what an industry insider has called a stunning misstep, the EDD is interpreting the overtime law, Assembly Bill 1066, to require goatherds to be paid hourly for all the time they’re on-site—resulting in up to 168 paid hours per week, with 120 of them as overtime, and salaries reaching $14,000 per month. Unable to pay wages that would total more than his grazing business’s gross income, Canaday has already sold off 1,000 of his animals and reports that his competitors are doing the same. Unless the situation is resolved soon, he says, fire prevention and landscape restoration through targeted goat grazing will no longer be economically viable. The California Department of Industrial Relations has said that the state is “actively exploring options.”

Arriving in style. Photo by Hobbs Brook Real Estate.

The Piedras Blancas project took place in a wide-open landscape, but targeted grazing has also proved successful in inhabited areas. “The idea of goats for prescribed grazing is really not a new one, and it fits in well with our integrated pest management program,” says Sarah Close, a landscape architect with the City of Madison Parks Division in Wisconsin. “We’re always looking for new tools to put in that toolbox.”

When Close first proposed goats as a solution for steep, hard-to-reach, overgrown areas in Madison’s parks, especially along lakeshores and stream edges where herbicides are unsuitable, there were nearby precedents. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, for example, had been using the practice for nearly a decade to help preserve native prairie at the Hogback Prairie State Natural Area. The method was new for Madison, however, and the proposal was in the works for a couple of years before it got the all clear from the multiple departments involved.

Concerns included the potential for people or pets to accidentally zap themselves on the electric fencing (which is strong enough to deter goats from escaping, but not strong enough to cause harm), so fences are positioned to provide pedestrians with a wide berth and posted with warning signs. There was also a concern from public health and zoning departments about what could be considered “temporary farm animals,” which was eventually resolved on the basis that the goats are not being raised in parks as an agricultural operation, but rather are being employed as a property maintenance strategy. “Like any change,” Close says, “you have to make sure everyone’s on board. You talk them through it.”

In spring 2020, Madison’s targeted grazing program began with a 40-goat trial (including 20 two-month-old nursing kids) in Greenside Park. Located in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, Greenside is a wooded, two-acre park where thick underbrush, including invasive species such as buckthorn and honeysuckle, needed clearing out. “You have to weigh how much desirable versus undesirable plants you have,” Close says. “If you have a really high-quality site with just a little bit of brush, it’s probably better to go in there and remove them manually.” The 40 goats at Greenside, rented from a local farmer, grazed for two separate periods, defoliating the plants soon after leaf out and then again after the plants had recovered.

From the perspective of the park’s public mission, the timing was perfect. The first grazing occurred around the start of pandemic-related lockdowns, “when people were looking for outdoor things to do, and they just needed something positive in their lives,” Close says. Parents brought their children for a walk to see the goats. Neighbors sat watching them from their porches. “People loved them,” Close says. At first it was entirely park staff who monitored the goats, corralled the occasional escapee (there’s a technique to it, says Close, having learned that the hard way), and answered lots of questions. Now the city has a neighborhood volunteer program for taking shifts to mind the herd.

This year goats are browsing an acre of dense brush in Madison’s 160-acre Door Creek Park (a long, thin park with active, programmed recreation toward one end and the remainder naturalized as a buffer along the creek). They are also clearing nearly 60 acres in six municipally managed conservation areas. “We figured goats would work in our parks, but not to the excellent extent that they have,” Close says. “It went so great that we just kept going.”

Quiet and nontoxic, targeted grazing has also proven a good fit for a commercial real estate company’s holistic approach to property management. Invasive species, such as bittersweet and poison ivy, were taking over large, undeveloped areas of Hobbs Brook Real Estate’s 160-acre office park in Johnston, Rhode Island, and starting to kill trees; they were also encroaching on the park’s few formally landscaped areas. “Not being a fan of herbicides—not wanting our guys to use them, and not wanting them released onto our property and potentially affecting wildlife—we were unsure how to approach it,” says Jim Murby, a property manager at Hobbs Brook. Then, one evening about four years ago, Murby heard a pitch for a goatscaping business on a reality TV series. Inspired, he raised the idea at a staff meeting, and a month later an employee snapped a photo of a truckload of goats with their manager’s contact info on the side.

The Goatscapers, the Rhode Island-based outfit the employee spotted, started out as an animal-rescue farm with a preponderance of goats, until the farm’s veterinarian suggested targeted grazing as a way for the owners to cover costs. Now the Goatscapers are booked through the season, Murby reports. “They’re winning at both ends,” he says. “They’re helping the animals, and they’re turning around and putting them to work to help us.” Goatscaping costs a little more up-front than herbicides, Murby says, but reaches a break-even point in subsequent years when there’s no need to keep buying herbicides—and the environmental benefits, such as a significant increase in monarch butterflies visiting the site, are beyond price.

“It’s something we look forward to each year, to be honest,” Murby says. “Everybody in the building makes excuses to go out and see the goats. It’s peaceful, and everyone just comes in chuckling.”

Katharine Logan is an architecturally trained writer on design, sustainability, and well-being based on Canada’s west coast.

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