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DEVELOPING A WEED & BRUSH CONTROL PROGRAM USING GOATS

By: "Gary Pfalzbot"
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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
In talking with a number of goat owners who feel that the use of goats for mitigation purposes could be successful, many are reluctant to do so for any number of reasons.

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
Before even trying to sway the perception of reluctant landowners, one must come up with a solid plan and ensure that it will work. The first thing to consider is how your goats will be used, which goats will be used, and how they will be transported to and from a control site.

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:
Rope, a flashlight (and extra batteries), a blanket or two, a few goat collars and lead ropes, a radio (or weather radio if you live in an area that has the potential for severe weather), goat treats (some low protein all-stock mix), a bale of hay, towels or rags, a rifle and bullets (if you live in an area where the potential for predators exist - check local ordinances BEFORE you bring this along), basic tools for any possible equipment repairs, and enough food, water and beverage for yourself. As far as medicines and antibiotics, unless you are equipped with a refrigerator or can bring along an ice chest, you may or not want to bring along heat-sensitive medicines. But some examples of medical items to bring along are; bandage wraps, blood-stop powder or unbleached flour, goat drench, iodine, rubbing alcohol and syringes. If you have included a snake kit, this may include anything necessary for administering an antidote on the spot.

Before You Put the Goats in Action...
Before you even think of letting your goats at those weeds and brush, be sure you have clearly identified the project and made all the necessary preparations, including discussing payment (if desired) with the property owner(s) and discussed all issues of liability. Your first step would be to walk the control area with the property owner(s) and get a good idea (which should later be put in writing in the form of a basic contract. Discuss time lines and all issues that both yourself and the property owner(s) mutually agree to be important in the basic contract. This basic contract gives both yourself and the property owner(s) a plan in writing and can protect both parties should any disputes arise.

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!
If you have carefully read this article up to this point, you and your goats should be ready to set out on a control project. Problem is, where do you start? The next part of this article will be focused upon setting up and starting a control project.

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?
Just about every time I put an ad in the paper that I have goats for sale, I'll receive at least one or two calls from someone wanting to rent a goat for weed control. I think the perception among non-goat owners is that goats can eat anything. I've actually entertained this idea a few times and visited some prospective "renters" only to find that they were merely interested in having the goat or goats cut their lawn! Or somewhere in their travels they had seen a goat and thought it might be neat to have one around - at least for awhile.

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.

In Closing
While I know that this article is not the final word on the subject, I urge each of you who has an interest in this area to carefully research your prospective control projects. It can be a fun and rewarding way to spend your time with your goats. You'll meet new people, see new places, and definitely get to spend quality time in nature with your goats while helping contribute to the environmental issue of weed control. For many years, a lot of otherwise goat edible weeds have gone to waste. Now you can take advantage of this and save the land and soil from harmful pesticides.

Should you have questions after reading this article, please feel free to contact me at: gary@goatworld.com

Addendum
Since the writing of this article, I have received countless calls and emails from people who say right off the bat, "Great article! Where can I rent some goats?" Well, PLEASE before you call and ask this infamous question, know that I do not rent goats per se, or have any specific company or agency that I recommend. You are still welcome to call but the fact that I'm in one state and the caller is 1500 miles away at times doesn't give me a lot of options to present. There are several companies nation wide that do have goat rental available and if interested, a Google search will yield results. My standard answer to this question is for the person to contact their local County Commissioner, Agriculture Extension Agent, or local fire department. They will often know of available points of contact for this type of service. And at the very least, checking with your County Commissioner will also reveal whether or not the use of goats is acceptable in your county (in some counties it is not).

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.

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24-November-2014
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