My Goatscaped Lawn Turned Farm
by Brittany Fangman of Loveland, OH
In 2016, my husband and I bought a home on five acres and were discussing how we were going to maintain the yard. The prior owner used to mow all five acres but had stopped mowing several acres of it years before. He left these acres to nature’s devices, which had begun a reforestation process. Here in Southwest Ohio the land naturally wants to revert to deciduous forest. I had fallen in love with the unique wild and natural feel of our land amongst suburbia, as the yard strived to revert back to nature. Prior to that moment, I had never really considered the benefits wildlife can receive from growing out your lawn.
While I had visions of my own nature preserve, I soon realized that the property also had quite a bit of invasive plants, particularly Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). These invasive plants have diverse negative impacts on ecosystems. Typically, places with invasive honeysuckle see a decrease in native plant species, causing a bottom up impact on wildlife. For example, birds may choose to lay their nests within Amur honeysuckle due to their early foliage. However, this plant lacks the complexity to hide nests from its predators. Both of these invasive honeysuckles also impact crucial pollinator relationships with native plants, since they choke out pollinators more desirable native food sources. These are just a few examples among many on how invasive plants can threaten biodiversity.
Typically, invasive plant removal and control means utilizing expensive and time consuming mechanical and chemical methods. Mechanical methods, such as using a tractor to pull the plant out of the ground, may compact the soil and consume large amounts of fuel adding to air pollution. Bush hogs, machinery designed to remove brush, can cost thousands of dollars, Furthermore, mechanical methods can be limited by the slope of the land, making some areas unreachable. Mechanical means are also not a very effective tactic without the addition of chemical agents to kill the plants, known as herbicides. Herbicides, such as glyphosate, also have environmental limitations for use, like weather and time of the year. It is advisable to use herbicides at a plant’s initial growth stage to maximize effectiveness. In addition, use during rain can cause runoff and kill valuable plants. Furthermore, herbicide runoff can harm our watershed, so it must be used with caution — to be sprayed only directly on the invasive plant.
The logical and fun solution to vegetation management for us has been employing goats. We do not have the time, nor the income to support mechanical means of clearing brush. Our goat cost averaged about $100 each — a much smaller upfront investment. In addition, the goats can do some work while we are occupied with our day jobs. Above all, we believe utilizing goats instead of traditional mechanical and chemical means impacts our local biodiversity in a positive way. We want plant species that naturally grow here to flourish and provide food and habitat for wildlife. Our own personal chew crew — three Boer goats and one Pygmy/Nigerian Dwarf goat — were purchased as a vegetation management solution that has worked for us.
We rotate the goats around our yard to eat thick brush and curb invasive species surrounding desirable native trees like oaks. As they do so, they do not harm our backyard habitat — home to rabbits, owls, turtles, deer, and turkey — and they fertilize as they go. Our rotation is currently not sophisticated; it is simply a matter of moving them when they have eaten themselves out of a job (which tends to happen in just a few short weeks). My husband and I then decide where they should move next, and our favorite locations are often where there is a great deal of invasive honeysuckle to be cleared. Honeysuckle vines often create an area that is impenetrable to us. However, once the goats eat some of it, we can then go in and remove the remaining invasive vegetation. This allows sunlight to hit the ground and native plants can sprout. Not only is it more ecologically responsible to use goats for invasive plant removal, but the results and cost are often similar, or even better. The goats help provide a lasting impact because they digest the seeds, so the plants don’t sprout again via the manure. We have observed goat cleared areas from several years ago and we can still visibly see a huge difference in the amount of weeds and brush in these sections of the yard. The goats, having a preference for woody plant species, consider woody invasives such as honeysuckle vines as one of their favorite treats. Overall, clearing vegetation is a lot more pleasurable when you have animals that get to enjoy eating the cleanup.
Before owning goats, I often read that goats were unruly escapists. However, in our three years of owning goats, we’ve only had escapees a handful of times, and only because we forgot to turn the electric fence on. Even then, they did not go far, as they just grazed on grass in the yard. We keep our goats busy and happy by rotating them to plant filled locations, so they don’t want to escape. We love our solar powered Premier One electric netting fencing that we use for this purpose. We have three 100 ft sections that can be connected or used alone, giving us flexibility in grazing location and size. This fencing is simple to move if you first clear a pathway wide enough around the perimeter so that it doesn’t get caught on brush.
These animals have an added benefit — they’re cute and fun to watch, and are surprisingly good companions. They know their names and are playful, reminding us of dogs. Additionally this method of goat keeping allows goats to customize their diet and choose plants that meet their nutritional needs. Ruminants of even the same breed, under the same conditions, have different nutritional needs and research has shown they instinctively know how to meet them. The weeds and brush also act as free feed for the goats during spring, summer, and fall. While our goats are strictly pets with landscaping capabilities, goats can provide income. Meat and milk are common income sources for this farm animal, but using their grazing capabilities for income should not be overlooked. There are numerous companies throughout the United States that rent out goats for contract grazing.
This is not to say that using goats to manage vegetation comes without challenges. There is a steep learning curve with keeping goats. In addition to fencing, one must think about predator control. For us, that means bringing our goats into our locked and secure barn every night for their safety. For others, it might mean employing a guardian animal like a donkey or a livestock guardian dog team. Beyond security, we had to learn other basics of goat care, such as hoof trimming and parasite management. The book, Raising Meat Goats, by Maggie Sayler, along with consulting with our goats prior owners, helped us with that endeavor. In addition, we learned that during the winter, we would incur the cost of hay due to lack of vegetation here in Ohio, so it was important to locate a farmer to supply it and then maintain a dry location at home to store it. We also had to build a permanent pen with traditional fencing, shelter, and stumps for them to play on during unsuitable grazing weather. Goats despise wet weather, so they must have shelter. Therefore, weather must be looked at and may delay vegetation clearing work if rain is in the forecast, and the pasture does not have adequate tree cover (or a movable three sided structure or large dog house could be employed). Furthermore, earning trust from your goats and learning how to get them to move to where you want is another important skill for rotational grazing. We drive our goats with the lure of cracked corn in their pans. Treats quickly make you a friend.
The goats have connected us to our primal agricultural nature. My husband and I had always been suburban dwellers, and as a result were disconnected from agriculture. Since owning goats, we have been inspired to go back to the basics. For example, we have added hens to our backyard to provide us with eggs. We can officially say we are a small farm, as our chickens produce food we eat (while our goats are “farm” animals, they are not a food commodity for us). Since eating our own farm fresh eggs, we have started growing our own vegetables, using homemade compost from our land to enrich the soil.
While chickens are often considered the gateway farm animal, in our experience it was the goats that turned our yard into a farm, and also a more eco friendly habitat.
So do you own some overgrown land with hopes of turning it into a farm? Or do you own a farm with portions of overgrown land where you spend time mowing or bush hogging? I suggest considering goats! Goat browsing can be an eco-friendly alternative to human and machine powered methods of vegetation management. By using goats to maintain your land, you can be a good steward for the environment and reap the other benefits of having goats — like increased joy and connection to agriculture.