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BRUSH CONTROL USING GOATS

By: Gary Pfalzbot
Web Site:GoatWorld
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The primary focus of this article is to familiarize new and prospective goat owners about using goats for brush control. Perhaps some of the long time goat owners will find a few things in this article that may be helpful as well. On the whole, there are a number of factors that one should take into consideration before turning those goats out on the brush. I will attempt to detail as many areas that I possibly can.

Natural Lawnmowers
Quite a few people have asked me, "How good are goats at controlling my lawn around the property?" While I'm am not the "official" word on this, I'd like to share a few thoughts and ideas for you to think about when considering goats as an alternative to mowing your lawn.

I feel that there is a common misnomer with alot of people who think that a goat will offer a solution to mowing their lawn. While goats certainly will make a good dent in a lawn, it is not the most suitable arrangement for either the goats or the lawn owner. A green lawn is perhaps the lowest order of brush control and that is why I am beginning my article at this point. It really depends on what you consider "mowing your lawn" as opposed to what the goats can really offer.

First of all, it is a fact that a goat will browse on your average lawn grass. However, the drawbacks to this are significant. A goat, or goats, will not uniformly "trim" the grass to look manicured. So if you are considering goats for the task, don't expect your lawn to look as neat and proper as the greens at a Jack Nicklaus golf course. The goat will often times leave behind large, spindly stalks that they refuse to eat for whatever reason. Perhaps a goat knows that leaving a few of these large stalks will produce more seeds to supply the next crop of lawn grass and weeds. While I seriously doubt that this is the case, it is a fact that they leave behind "untrimmed" lawn and weeds.

Secondly, lawn grass while nutritious in many ways, should not be the total nutritional source for a goat. There are several different types of grasses as well, each with it's own nutritional characteristics. A goat needs a variety of nutrition sources that will provide the essential vitamins, proteins and roughage to balance the goat's diet completely and to maintain proper health. You might get away with setting up a secondary food source such as a hay feeder away and off the lawn area to feed such nutritional supplements. However, some people do not have this luxury and must create the secondary food source on the lawn itself. This of course turns the lawn into a rather strewn mess. I've not yet seen a well fed goat that will eat every piece of hay they are given. They tend to waste alot, either from urinating or defecating on it. And this kind of waste matter tends to get rather odiferous after a short period of time.

Now I am not saying that it is not possible to turn your goats to your lawn, because if done right with alot of planning, you may achieve some very good results. By using the waste matter such as the uneaten and wasted hay, you can create the start of a very good compost pile. But in reality there are a couple of other things to think about as well; goats tend to paw at the ground and will not stop until they are at the dirt. They are digging themselves a nice, comfortable place to lay. If you want a lawn that has several dug out spots, perhaps goats are the answer for you. Another consideration is the urine and fecal matter. It will remain on the lawn until it has decomposed and soaked in the ground. Eventually it does make for a pretty fair lawn fertilizer. But remember, your houseguests are going to be put off if you decide to have a picnic on your lawn.

The thing to think about at this point is how much work YOU are willing to do. You may be getting out of mowing the lawn but the work you will be performing to rake the lawn clean each week will be more strenuous than pushing a lawn more by far. Perhaps the perfect arrangement for using a goat "to supplement" you lawn care program would be to have the lawn area fenced in and to then allow the goat to browse the lawn by day, sleep elsewhere (and have the secondary food source in the evening).

Head Out To The Brush
Quite frankly, heavy brush infestation is an area where I have my own found expertise. Our land contains several species of plants that can be considered undesirable and the goats have performed admirably in either controlling or eradicating these plants and weeds. In a little less than two years, I have gotten a nearly 4 acre area under control by allowing our goats to have free access to the weeds and brush growing there.

To many these results sound wonderful. But before you rush to turn your goats out on such infestations, there are a few VERY IMPORTANT guidelines which you are advised to follow:

First, set about the task of trying to correctly identify each and every plant and weed you have growing where the goats will be allowed to browse. This is perhaps the most important of all because you need to determine if you have plants and weeds that are highly toxic. It is highly advisable to eradicate these plants yourself before the goats are ever allowed to set hoof on the land. If you do not perform this step, you risk losing your goats to poisoning, spending alot of money treating sick goats, or both.

For the most part, there are alot of "classified poisonous or toxic" plants that goats can and will eat with no apparent effect. Two such plants that come to mind are poison oak and poison ivy. Our land contained both of these plants at one time and thanks to our goats, we now have very little of it. However there is a drawback to this. If you do allow your goats to eat these plants, you risk the poison ivy/oak itch if you come into contact with the goats for a certain period of time after they have eaten it. This also applies to drinking the milk they produce and you may consume.

In any size infestation, there are plants that the goats will not eat no matter how hungry they may be. Two such plants that come to mind are Mullein and Nightshade. These are plants that if you want eradicated, you will end up having to eradicate them yourself by cutting or burning. While Mullein is not known to be poisonous at this time, Nightshade is. Mullein is a weed that goats refuse to eat no matter how hungry they are. In our particular situation, the goats eventually trampled sown the Nightshade with their hooves so that it stopped growing altogether.

It is also very important that you never consider herbicides in your brush control plan on areas where the goats will be allowed to browse. Certain herbicides can be fatally toxic to your goats. It is also a proven fact that along with herbicides, many plants and weeds that are known to be poisonous can and do store their toxic principles in the body. These types of toxins will not show themselves until many days, weeks, months or even years later. So it is indeed very important to know what types of plants and weeds you have on your property. This also applies to the milk they may produce and that you may consume.

A very good idea that is almost a necessity is to give your goats access to a constant supply of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). This very inexpensive chemical helps to maintain the natural pH level in the rumen of the goat, something which will ultimately be affected by the types of plants and weeds they are browsing on a daily basis. There is also a good possibility that if a goat does happen to "accidentally" ingest a poisonous plant which is more than mildly toxic, the sodium bicarbonate will help to reduce the toxic principles. While goats are picky eaters, there will be times when the browse an area and ingest just a small portion of a plant that they normally would not or should not eat. Sodium bicarbonate gives an extra measure of security against this.

How Many Goats Do I Need?
The number of goats required to control brush is subjective. It largely depends on how large an area you want controlled, what type(s) of brush you are controlling and how quickly you want the area controlled. An unwritten estimate of the number of goats needed per acre is 3 to 4 "full sized" goats.

In discussing "brush control goats" with others who have either been successful or not, they generally agree upon approximately 3 to 4 "full sized goats per acre. A slight variation to this figure is that the Pygmy and Nigerian Dwarf breed of goats are not full sized goats and they will need to be doubled to achieve the results that 3 or 4 of their full sized counterparts will consume on a daily basis. This is not to discourage you from using smaller goats as they are extremely useful for those "hard to get" areas where the big goats will shy away from or not be able to browse.

As you already know, certain types of weeds and plants have different growth rates. Some weeds such as kudzu are capable of growing up to one foot per day. Wild grapes and other such vines are capable of growing at least six inches per day during their growing season. Other types of weed and brush seem to appear overnight, grow quickly to full size and then stop while other types of weed and brush just grow at a slow rate, but lay down roots and runners that multiply the overall infestation. There is also the type of weed and brush that grows quickly and seeds quickly. This too is a nuisance and controlling these types is usually very difficult if not dealt with swiftly before being allowed to bloom.

What Type of Goats Do I Need?
My brush control efforts have been a combination of larger and smaller mixed breeds and the results have been extremely noticeable. What I have noticed is that all of our smaller goats seem to lag behind the bigger goats, sort of performing a cleanup of what was ignored by the bigger goats. Also, if you have trees or woods that you would like to see trimmed and thinned a bit, the larger goats for the most part will raise on their hind legs and reach the highest branch they can, thus stripping it of it's leaves. When you've seen woods that are heavily infested and that the goats have later cleared, you will very much appreciate this. So basically what I am recommending here is to use any type of goat but to mix their size and breed for the best results.

Their is a specific type of goat that has been labeled "brush goat" by many goat breeders. Brush Goats are simply goats that are a mixture of different breeds of goats and that is not a registered breed. For example, a Brush Goat might be 1/2 Nubian and 1/2 Alpine. Or 1/8 Nubian, 1/8 Alpine, 1/8 Saanen and 5/8 Toggenburg. The combinations are endless. But for all intent and purpose - a brush goat is generally a goat that has been produced by breeders experimentation with mixing different breeds, or, a goat that is just a goat that has never been registered, or, a goat that is just a goat. And yes, even a registered goat could be considered a Brush Goat if that was their sole purpose but the chances of this situation are slim to non-existent. The owner of a registered prize winning goat is certainly not going to refer to that goat as a Brush Goat even though the goat may help control brush.

Things That Go Bump In The Night (and Day)
One area that is rarely covered in brush control but that I feel is of extreme importance - Predator Control. For some, this may not apply depending upon your land. For larger areas of land in rural settings, you may want to have at least one or two guard/herd dogs that are allowed to run with the goats. This will minimize the threat of potential predators such as coyotes and other packs of dogs. There are several breeds of dogs that are capable of this, Great Pyrenees, Anatolian Shepherds, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, Komondors, just to name a few. It only takes once for a coyote or other carnivorous predator to bring down one of your herd. And if they succeed once, they will be back to try again. While your goats might only cost $30 to $40 each, it does not take many attacks to start the adding machine running up the total of losses.

The Grass IS Always Greener
For a goat this saying could not be more true - the grass is greener on the other side. No matter how much of a salad bar smorgasbord your goats will have on your property, they will always conspicuously eye and try to get at that "other grass". This being said, I can't stress enough the importance of good fencing to keep the goats controlling the brush where you want them to control it. My personal observation as well here is that goats tend to start at the bottom of a hill and work their way up. This must be a natural instinct of many breeds of goats as most of them have come from mountainous origins. Another good idea to alleviate alot of stress in the longrun is to notify your adjacent neighbors of your intent to use goats for brush control. In the event that your goats do escape the confines of your property, a "good" neighbor will notify you or simply return the goats to your property. Good neighborly relations is a big plus in brush control. Who knows? Your neighbor(s) might even offer to help.

In Summary
I think I have pretty much covered the basics here in this article. The best rule of thumb is that a little bit of planning will go a long way. While I have not specifically covered these topics in this article, concerns such as shelter, medical supplies, and other health and general care items should not be overlooked. The whole prospect of using goats for brush control is more involved than just turning them out. But in reality it can be enjoyable and only as difficult as YOU make it. That is why I have tried to stress some of the most important points here - to keep it from being difficult. A wise man once said - give the job to a lazy man and he will find the easiest way to get it done. This is true and the same applies here. You are trying to eliminate the time, work and money you would have to spend controlling the brush yourself. Don't make the job more difficult than it could be by not following some of the suggestions here.

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 near Branson, Missouri where he and his wife Pam raise a few breeds of goats, mainly precipitated for the control of Kudzu vine.

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