If you have an overgrown piece of property that needs clearing, there are some obvious and odious ways to do it through hard manual labor or noxious chemicals. But there’s a third way that’s easier on your back, friendlier to the environment and also highly entertaining:
Call in the goats.
Carrboro-based Goat Squad is an outfit specializing in “conservation grazing” or clearing out unwanted vegetation the old-fashioned way, by eating it (another is Rent A Goat, although it does large properties only). There are a few things that are dangerous for goats to eat. In particular, ornamental plants like azaleas and rhododendrons are poisonous to them.
Poison ivy, however, is no problem. And kudzu is a delicacy, as N.C. State University’s Jean-Marie Luginbuhl discovered back in 2003. The university had some land on Centennial campus that needed clearing without pesticides because of a protected species of mollusk, and goats turned out to be the perfect solution.
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“If you don’t want to use herbicides to clean up brush, goats are the best,” said Luginbuhl, a professor of crop sciences at N.C. State. “They’re very, very effective. You see all these big leaves and think there’s a lot of biomass there. But they go through it quite quickly. They especially love kudzu. It’s very nutritious, and they’ll even eat the terminal stems like spaghetti.”
Long-term, about four goats can keep an acre of kudzu under control. And as far as short-term clearing, I can personally vouch for goats’ effectiveness. My Raleigh backyard is essentially a grove of large oak trees, and not enough sunlight reaches the ground for grass to grow. But enough light gets through for a semi-impenetrable jungle of underbrush and weedy, fast-growing trees to have grown up.
The yard’s back corners were thick enough to be almost impassable, but the 19-animal herd that Goat Squad brought in made short work of it in less than 24 hours. The whole thing was mesmerizing to watch for the whole neighborhood.
“This is the coolest thing ever,” enthused my neighbor Stephanie as the herd swarmed around us, gobbling leaves and tree bark. Nearby, meanwhile, her children were imploring their father to please let them have a pet goat.
One way to meet the neighbors
It’s worth noting that goat rental is not a particularly low-cost option. Goat Squad installs temporary electrical fencing to contain the herd, and the hours spent putting that up and taking it down (which is billed on an hourly per-person basis, plus mileage) can double the $400 flat fee for renting about 20 goats for about 24 hours.
But the fun bonus to the whole thing is how many neighbors you’ll meet.
“They’re very socially influential,” said Diana Tetens, Goat Squad’s owner. “I can’t tell you how many times people have said things like, ‘In 10 years, I never met any of my neighbors – until now.’ They’re great connectors.”
Tetens used to work for the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association in Durham, during which time she became intimately familiar with the conservation issues of clearing land. So in 2012, she founded Goat Squad and started acquiring animals.
By now, Tetens’ herd numbers 42 goats, and she’ll generally use around half of them for most residential lots. But the occasional job does come in that requires the whole herd.
Goats have a lifespan of 15-18 years, and most of Tetens’ goats are on the young side, between 2 and 7 years old. They’re mostly “wethers,” or castrated males. Between boarding, vaccinations and other upkeep, Tetens said her profit margin is pretty narrow despite the cost.
But working with goats definitely has its charms. They’re very sociable creatures, wagging their tales like dogs and using gentle head-butts to demand that you pet them. The herd that Tetens brought to my house also featured one small two-year-old Nigerian dwarf goat that was adorable enough to make children squeal with delight.
The Nigerian dwarf was named Pikachu. Tetens has given almost all of her goats names, including Wiz, Buddy, Mabel, Opal and Sequoia.
“They have such different personalities,” Tetens said, pointing out individual goats. “That one over there is Bobby, and he’s about the smartest in the herd. He’s also the biggest, so he’s the alpha goat. But he’s a scaredy cat. Even if the fence is down, he won’t leave the herd.”
Goat myths vs. facts
Goats will eat almost anything vegetative, including some things they shouldn’t – part of Goat Squad’s fencing-off process is to keep the goats out of any plants that will poison them. But the notion that goats are garbage disposals that will eat things like tin cans is a myth.
“They’re like babies – they’ll test things with their mouths,” Tetens said. “Fencing them in is like child-proofing, too, just trying to think of whatever crazy thing you think they might do, because they will. They are resourceful when it comes to food. But they don’t like being separated from the group, either.”
Indeed, most of the goats will stay pretty close together as they move through multiple cycles of grazing and resting, although there were a few exceptions. The aptly named Scout would wander off alone, and several of them seemed more interested in socializing with humans than eating with the herd. But those are outliers.
“They are such herd animals. It’s fascinating to watch,” Tetens said. “If they know that their place, social structure, food, shelter and the rest is all stable, they’re very mellow. But if any of that is disturbed, they do get anxious.”
The city of Raleigh has some regulations that pertain to keeping goats and other farm animals permanently, including a provision stating that one “non-pygmy goat” weighing 85 pounds or less and standing no taller than 21 inches can be kept per acre. But this kind of goat rental is more or less unregulated (although it might be wise to check with your homeowners association first).
“From a zoning perspective, there aren’t any laws about this type of activity where a herd comes in, clears out brush and moves on,” said assistant planning director Travis Crane. “Nothing that says it’s allowed or not.”
Tetens said she once had somebody in Cary call animal control on her – “But I just explained what it was all about, and they said, ‘No problem.’”
No problem, indeed.