Well, it’s summer and for many of us that means yard work. Mulching, watering, pulling out weeds. For those unfortunately stuck with poison ivy, the task of getting rid of it typically means hours of back breaking, itchy, work or toxic chemicals.
But there is at least one lesser known alternative. Goats.
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The 55 acre Great Rock farm in Georgetown, Massachusetts has more than 130 goats and twice as many sheep.
Michelle Aullson greets me with a huge smile. She grew up on this farm surrounded by ducks, goats, sheep, herding dogs and horses. And after living for some time in Washington D.C, she decided to come back and help out the family business: Goats2Go.
Michelle is wearing black yoga pants, sneakers and her blonde hair is in a tight ponytail. We walk together towards a goat pasture, surrounded by a white fence. As we enter the enclosure, Michelle pats a shiny black goat and introduces us.
“So this is Squeeks — she is five months old,” said Aullson. “Squeeks will probably follow us all around. And that’s Miss Piggy, and that’s Miss Piggy’s brother up on top of the hay, the highest point the goats always want.”
She is able to point out every goat by name and introduces them like they’re her extended family.
“Patches are coming out of the barn right there,” she said. “This is Oreo — she is the best doe with the babies, she had four this year. This is one of her babies from a few years ago. That’s a crazy goat right there. That’s Giraffe because he looked like a giraffe when he was a baby, he’s gotten bigger now but. And this is Little Missy and then there’s a few other ones right here that were my little tiny ones.”
Michelle was present for the birth of many of these goats.
“And they’re jumping around the moment they’re born they’re really cute, sometimes they are the size of a water bottle with little legs, a St. Algene bottle,” she said.
After getting to meet the furrier side of the Aullson family, we hop onto a pickup truck to see some goats at work.
We arrive at our destination in the neighboring town of Newbury, Massachusetts. There’s a green two floor suburban home with about a 200 square foot yard. A yellow trailer filled with goats is parked in the driveway. The area where the goats will be working is filled with rocks, trees, and plenty of noxious weeds like poison ivy, poison oak and sumac.
Jamie Genest, the head farm caretaker and sheep herder, starts sectioning off the backyard.
“Well, basically what we have to do is we clear a path, so that we can set the electric fence up because the fence itself can’t hit anything or it’ll ground it out,” Genest said. “Here is your electric fence with your rod battery.”
He puts an electric fence around the work area to keep the goats from being bothered by dogs and to keep the flower beds from being bothered by the goats. Inside the fence, Jamie has set up a pool of water to make sure that the goats stay hydrated while they’re on the job. To the side, there’s an open tent for the goats to rest under, in case they start to overheat. Genest makes sure that these Goats2Go are always good to go.
Homeowners Tracy and Peter Frangos come outside to greet the crew and get a peek at the goats. Peter says he had seen advertisements for Goats2Go and just decided to give it a try.
“It might be a nice easy way to take care of getting this area landscaped and get rid of the brush with a natural process,” said Frangos. “It’s not going to be cheap, but it’s not going to be more expensive and it’s, you know, environment neutral. So it’s not something I can do because it’s poison ivy and I don’t want to be in poison ivy. And it’s effective and good for everybody and the goats get a meal out of the deal.”
Goat landscapers are a novel, and as Peter alluded to, a fairly expensive alternative. The cost of hiring Goats2Go is more than $500 dollars per grazing job.
The most popular and cheapest way to eradicate weeds is the use of herbicides. But some herbicides are non-selective, meaning they not only kill the intended plant but everything around it including any insects that happen to stop by for a landing. And long-term exposure to herbicides has been linked to many health concerns in humans, including cancer. So goat landscapers aren’t just cute furry friends, they make an honest living as an eco-friendly alternative.
“Usually the trailer comes open and they just come out and some of them just faint when they come off the trailer because they’re all excited or nervous,” said Michelle.
Fainting goats also known as myotonic goats, have a natural mutation in their genes which cause their muscles to stiffen up when they are startled.
“And as soon as they get in there, you’ll see, they’ll just rummage around and start eating what they like first, which is probably the poison ivy,” she said. “And then they’ll go back to what they like second, just like how we like, you know, the good stuff on our plate first.”
The trailer opens up and Jamie starts latching ropes onto the collars that all of the goats are wearing around their necks. They seem eager to hurry down the small slope of grass onto the overgrown area of the yard. I was given the honor of guiding one of the goats to the weed buffet.
“So this is what you call a walk in job, you gotta hand lead all the goats in,” she said.
I have grabbed on to a goat, but I’m not sure I’ve directed in the right path. He’s just wandering around a tree right now. As soon as the goats stepped inside the fence, it wasn’t even difficult to pull them anymore. It was like the goat knew exactly where to go.
Some goats head right towards the rocky area, others huddle inside the tall brush as though they’re all eating from a family table. Two black and white spotted goats are so deep in the bush that I only see their horns peeking out from between the leaves.
“So goats are what you call high browsers, and then they eat low grass if there’s nothing else there,” Michelle explained. “But they don’t care for grass, they like shrubs and they like these bushes right here.”
Other animals like sheep and cows are also grazing animals, but Michelle says goats have several advantages when it comes to eating noxious weeds like poison ivy.
“They have teeth on the bottom and a soft pad on the top which they can even eat stuff that’s thorny, and in woody bark and everything,” she said. “They have a very acidic stomach so when they eat something, they break it all down. When they poop the other end, they don’t regerminate what’s already there. Horses and cows have seeds in their poop, goats do not and neither do sheep. But the goats just happen to love it and I think it has to do with their digestive system and what they like to eat.”
It will take the goats about three days to finish clearing out this space. But it’s not ‘one and done.’ Noxious weeds will grow back. It will take the goats several sessions to starve the plant, blocking it from the energy it needs to survive and weakening its roots.
Although goats are not able to eradicate weeds in just one sitting, they are able to remediate soil by churning it with their hooves and fertilizing it with their waste. After these biomachines are done cleaning up the overgrown shrubs, Michelle will be ready to take them back to their home at the Great Rock Farm. While these goatscapers won’t take over the jobs of human landscapers for good, Goats2Go provides an alternative to those wanting to get rid of weeds and shrubs in a more natural, goaty sort of way.
This report was produced with help from Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran.