Goats as lawnmowers. It sounds adorable, right? A herd of goats trimming a lush green carpet of lawn, obligingly fertilizing as they go. Who wouldn’t prefer that to a loud machine coughing out fumes, or a push-mower heavier than Sisyphus’ rock? But the image isn’t really realistic.
There have been a lot of headlines about using goats as living lawnmowers. Google famously used goats on an undeveloped section of its campus, and more recently the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. used goats to control nuisance plants.
“Everybody likes that idea of lawn mowers, but they’re really not,” said Brian Knox, owner of the Maryland-based company, Eco-Goats.
Both the Google campus and the Congressional Cemetery had a lot of overgrown brush and weeds to contend with, and needed to clear areas that were hard to access with traditional equipment.
That’s where goats really excel. They’re more like living weedwackers than living lawnmowers. Goats love plants that you are least likely to want in your yard, like blackberry brambles, poison oak and thistles, according to Kari Dodd. Dodd works fulltime at Tehama County Farm Bureau in California, but has a side gig raising Boer goats for meat.
“They’ll go for the stickers and the poky things before they go for the grass,” said Dodd.
This is not to say goats won’t eat grass if given a chance. Mike Canaday, owner of California Grazing and the man whose goats cleared brush for Google, said his wife uses goats to trim their lawn. “We don’t have a lawnmower,” he said. “If they’ve been eating a lot of brush, they’ll go for the grass.”
In some very specific circumstances, a goat could trim a lawn — if that lawn was small, and securely fenced in, and had no other nibble-able features, like a flower bed or overhanging trees. In other words: not many lawns. Also, it just wouldn’t be so good for the goat.
Goats like variety. Even if they do nibble some grass along with their favorite weeds and brush, they also need a good high-nutrition food source like alfalfa hay.
Even if the lawn-mowing goat is a bit of a myth, goats can help keep your landscaping in check under the right conditions. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you buy a goat for brush control.
1. How many goats do you need?
“You can’t just have one goat,” Dodd said. Goats are social animals and will be lonely without another goat. If you’re not planning to breed them and you’re not keeping them for milk, you don’t necessarily need a male and a female. Knox said he typically uses a herd of 30 goats to clear a half-acre of dense brush in 3 to 4 days, but for a backyard operation a much smaller herd is fine as long as you have more than one.
2. What kind of housing do you need?
Fences should be robust enough to keep out predators like dogs and coyotes. If you plan to use them for brush clearing, you’ll probably want a movable fence as well. It’s not safe to tether a goat and leave it unattended because of the risk of predators. In addition to good fences, goats need a well-ventilated shelter to keep out wind and rain.
3. What do they eat?
Most goats shouldn’t be expected to survive on brush alone. Dodd supplements her goats’ feed with alfalfa and hay. “They need roughage to keep their stomachs working,” she said. Some goat owners also feed their animals high-protein grain, and it’s essential to provide a salt block with trace minerals. Canaday said the mineral supplement is especially important when goats are eating dry brown material. When they have a chance to browse on fresh greens, they can get more of their nutritional needs from brush.
4. What shouldn’t they eat?
“Goats are eating machines,” said Canaday. This is one of the reasons they’re not ideal lawnmowers. Unless you keep them carefully fenced in, away from your vegetable garden or your flowers, they’ll eat things you don’t want them to eat. Many plants common in gardens are poisonous to goats, including tomato vines, rhododendrons and oleander.
Before using them to clear brush, it’s important to check to make sure there’s nothing growing there that might be poisonous. Knox lost a goat once because it ate yew. He always checks for poisonous plants before he brings his herds in, but in this case he didn’t see the yew until it was too late.
5. What can goats do besides clear weeds?
People raise goats for dairy, meat and fiber. All of these things are well within reach for a small-scale goat farmer. Dairy goats must be milked every twelve hours, so it’s a bigger time commitment than other types of goats. A typical dairy goat will produce milk for about ten months after kidding. They breed in the fall, kid in the spring, and produce milk until about January. Then they need to be dried off, or gradually stop producing milk, so their bodies can rest before they give birth again.
Like any animals, it’s important to do research before buying goats to make sure you can provide adequate care. Goats need regular veterinary care and vaccinations, in addition to sturdy housing and good nutrition.
Goats also make fabulous pets. “I can waste an hour and a half watching goats,” admitted Knox. “I’m just a sucker for them. There’s so much personality there.”
Photo Credit: Natesh Ramasamy/Flickr