Small Farms Program
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Even the smallest timber stands or neglected pasture on an acreage can include unwanted brush. Management of the brush can be time-consuming, expensive and include chemicals which include restrictions, environmental concerns, etc.
Some rural residents are utilizing a biological control method for brush – goats! The practice works best on forests native and naturalized pastures where trees and shrubs need to be removed to restore the desired plants.
Why do goats work so well? Goats are natural browsers and not grazers, and they actually prefer to eat at those species eye level and then move down. Preferred species include – multiflora rose, honeysuckle, sumac, willow, mulberry, wild grape, autumn olive, gooseberry, chicory, red clover, ragweed, lambs quarter, sericea lespedeza, crown vetch, poison ivy/oak, spotted knapweed, pigweed, oak, walnut, agrimony and leafy spurge. Goats will also eat cedar, buck brush, hickory, ironweed, curly dock, pokeweed, buttercup, white clover, thistles, bur dock, queen anne’s lace and garlic mustard.
Goats on the Go is one Iowa business that “rents” goats to homeowners to remove brush from pasture. “Many of our customers find that after the goats go through the area once, it becomes a much more hospitable place to do manual labor,” said Aaron Steele, co-owner of the business Goats on the Go, along with Chad Steenhoek. “There are fewer bugs, fewer thorns, fewer skin irritants and you can see where you're stepping while you carry saws around. You can also see the exact places where the defoliated plants need to be cut off and treated judiciously with a precisely-applied squirt of herbicide, rather than broadly spraying a chemical over the entire area. The combined stress of the goats grazing with a follow-up manual treatment can be very effective.”
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends that the total area to be grazed be fenced off into at least five paddocks. Browsing should begin as soon as leaves are evident on brush. Once all species have at least 80% leaf removal, you then move the goats to the next paddock, repeating the rotations as new leaves appear within each paddock.
“While we refer to our service in shorthand as "goat rental," we actually provide a lot more than just goats,” said Steele. “We talk with customers at length and usually visit their properties to make sure we understand their goals and to verify that goats are a good solution to their vegetation problem. We then set up portable electric fencing in a way that will concentrate the goats most efficiently on the problem vegetation. We usually deliver around 40 goats to most sites, but we'll use more for projects 10 acres or larger. We provide water and move the fencing as necessary to give the goats access to more of the targeted vegetation. We check on the goats daily and monitor progress to make sure the customer's goals are met, and that negative impacts (like erosion or too much damage to preferred vegetation) don't pop up. We have representatives in Ames, Des Moines, Pella, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City so that we can provide this high level of service to a large part of Iowa. We can also consult with and train owners of larger properties who are interested in buying their own goats for ongoing vegetation management over the long term. Conservation organizations have found that service appealing.”
To calculate how many goats are needed in an initial stocking rate, determine your total acres of brush, multiplied by 8-12 (number recommended per acre by USDA NRCS for brush removal) and then divided by the number of grazing weeks. NRCS research shows grazing after August 1 has little to no effect on brush species mortality. Using those calculations with a real-world example, 25 acres of brushy timber x 10 goats per acre divided by 12 weeks of grazing time from May 1 to July 31 = 21 goats initial stocking rate.
If you didn’t want to purchase the goats yourself, companies like Goats on the Go welcome the opportunity to visit with homeowners.
“In order to get started, a property owner should give us a call and be prepared to describe their situation – how large is the area needing the goats' help? What kind of vegetation is causing trouble? What is the terrain like? Can we get to the area with a vehicle and trailer?” said Steele. “We've visited enough properties that we can offer a ballpark figure based on a phone conversation, but we will do a free on-site consultation if we have a representative in the area of the property. If not, we may ask the property owner to send us some photos. Then we'll provide a formal quote and set a date for the goats' arrival after the property owner has provided a deposit.”