“Can’t we just rent a goat and let it do the weed whacking?” moaned my hubby Pat. He had been cutting the tall grass for an hour and still had an hour’s work to do. “I’ll look into it,” I replied.
That’s how I got on the phone with Brad Woolf, owner of Hire-A-Goat, based in Ramona (760-896-4847; hire-a-goat.com). “Typically, we’re used for brush abatement, to reduce fuel for fires, and we target properties with one to five acres or more. I set up electric containment fences, bring in a herd of goats — and a llama to help protect from coyotes — and they stay onsite until the brush objective has been met. The goats are mainly Boer — a meat-goat from South Africa with a little Spanish in them — which gives them their height.”
Before putting his herd to work, Woolf does a site analysis to make sure there aren’t toxic plants that would harm the goats. “A lot of people like to plant oleander — that’s extremely toxic. Avocado, cherry, and types of ivy and certain ornamental plants are also toxic.”
Will the goats leave a yard bare of all vegetation? And what about erosion?
“No. Goats eat the woody part of the plant last; they will eat some of the smaller stems back. What that does is keeps the root base of the plant intact, so you won’t have much erosion. And the ‘litter’ — the bits and pieces of twigs and leaves left on the ground — breaks up the energy from the falling rain. And if you goat frequently enough, they can eradicate invasive weed species. You get to the weeds before they seed, and over a year or two, the root systems die out.”
Price? “We charge $800 to $1200 an acre, depending on transportation costs, labor-cost of the fencing, access to water, the terrain, whether it’s steep or rocky, the type of vegetation. Our clients tell us that our prices are anywhere from half to one third the cost of a hand crew.”
Johnny Gonzales, field operation manager for Environmental Land Management (619-234-4555; elmgoats.com), says, “One hundred goats can eat roughly an acre a day, depending on how high and dense the vegetation is. We put in 200 to 600 goats, depending on how thick the area is and how fast we need to get it done.”
Environmental Land Management only works multi-acre sites. They set up one- or two-acre paddocks and then deliver the goats by truck. As the four-legged brush-clearers are working, “We set up two more paddocks in advance. Once the goats achieve the cleanliness of one area, we move them into the next corral. If we were to leave them too long in one paddock, they would strip down the plants at a deeper level.” If the goats have to stay overnight, a herder stays with them with guard dogs “to keep coyotes, mountain lions, and bobcats away.”
As land-management tools, Gonzales says, goats work best in conjunction with a crew of humans. “Once they’re done, we move them to the next pen, and the hand-crews and machinery come in and finish.”
Much of Gonzales’s work is in areas he calls the “wild-land urban interface,” where suburban neighborhoods back up to wild canyons. “Instead of every individual doing their own backyard canyon, we try to get a group of homes to pull their funds together. An acre of land runs about $675. If you divide that by six houses, it’s $125 per neighbor. In fire season, you are only as safe as your neighbor is.”
I know what you’re thinking — tons of vegetation eaten by hundreds of goats means poop, and that must mean odors and flies. But both Gonzales and Woolf say flies are not a problem. “Their droppings have absolutely no odor to them,” Woolf says. “They break down quickly and refertilize the soil.”
What about noise? “Every once in a while you will hear them doing their ‘baah’ stuff,” Woolf says. “But, for the most part, they are quiet.”
Far from being a nuisance to neighbors, Gonzales says, the goats are often a reason to party. “In some of the communities where we work annually, they arrange parties. They want to know the specific dates that we show up, and they will have barbecues and invite their friends. They have a ball.”