Silvopasture Management & Forages

Goats as Four-legged Bush Hogs

by Natalie Marsh

As of summer 2012, Chestnut Hill (C.Hill) has been advancing into new territory– four-legged ruminating rascals! More often referred to as, goats.

Ah, goats. These creatures have been domesticated for centuries, finding places on family farms through many continents for centuries. So one would think they would have adapted well to this role, learning to remain close to their caregivers, right? Well, I’m no certified historian, but I would venture to guess that for every goat found on the family farm, there was one goat that belonged on the family farm that instead was roaming about in the neighbors’ vegetable gardens, nearby hillsides, or undisclosed locations only known by the goats themselves! Ruminating rascals, indeed. Despite their predisposition for unruliness, goats have nonetheless persisted as a valued component of many homesteads, and for all the trouble they cause, if managed with forethought and grace, they can be worth it!

Here at C.Hill, our goat adventures began in part as a search for a viable Bush Hog alternative. Our entire 24 acres was logged about 15 years ago, and although the steeper mountainous sections have self-remediated into passable recouperating forest land, the more level lowland areas that had previously been planted to tobacco were remediating themselves with their own plant pharmacy, which unfortunately was a painful maze of thorny skin-snaggers like blackberry, locust, and multiflora rose, and the notorious velcro-seeded legume, giant Lespedeza. We do love encouraging the wild, sapien-free side of our property, but our kitchen table simply demanded that we also cultivate a more intentional crop-yielding area. The old tobacco fields have the easiest access for us and were the most sensible options for our orcharding aspirations. To give us area to work with in our initial years, we did Bush Hog, plow, and disc one of the fields, but the second field we have been developing a longer-term management plan, amounting to a series of animals to weed, clear and fertilize the area, the first ones being the goats!

What qualifies as ‘food’ to a goat is really quite incredible. Sheep and cattle are a bit snob-ish about these things and prefer a swath of grass to graze on, but goats are browsers meaning they like eating herbs and plants that grow well up off the ground–a natural adaptation to keep them away from parasites that reside lower on moist ground. Blackberry leaves and multiflora rose spines are not just accepted but relished by their tough palates, and they make quick work of de-foliating the canes and branches. Lespedeza is another quickly devoured favorite. It contains 12-14% crude protein (depending on variety and stage of growth), an important aspect to keep in mind when thinking about goat health. Thinking of a pasture as one might think about hay, keeping an eye out for nutrient conent and proper protein levels, is prudent. Our pastures seemed an ideal Brambles-of-Eden for goats.

We eagerly brought our first two goats to the plot in early July, and the pastures were untouched and lush. Everything was in place and ready. We were sure this was going to be a grand sucess. This is where we have to backtrack to “for every goat in the fenceline”…because within ten seconds of releasing those two goats, we no longer owned goats. We had to come to terms that one can’t really lay claim to ‘owning’ something that runs off in to the forest (if indeed one can ‘own’ something at all!). Those animals were going to be owned by nobody but themselves! We did learn a lesson that day;  no matter how lush a pasture is, a goat on the run won’t notice even the most favored thorny tidbit until they are calm and collected, which requires them being tethered for a day or two, preferrably within reach of the electric fence so they can come to understand the consequences of contact. So came the next two goats!

Pegasus and Thor were our second testpiece, and with a better understanding of goat psychology, we experienced our grand sucess at last; weeds disappearing left and right. These two boys were three month old weed-eating machines! We introduced two more does a month later and they acted a bit like demolition cranes, jumping their front legs over high canes and branches and snapping them down to face level where they took the choice pickings, leaving the two younger ones to glean the leftovers. In just under three months, they ate down about half an acre, leaving pelletized fertilizer spread nicely over the whole area!

It is easy to glorify goats, charming in their own right, and dilligent weeders to boot! But alas it would be irresponsible not to cast a shade of reality on that sunny hillside. One thing we noticed was that even once the goats had done a thorough going-over of their pasture, it was still quite difficult to navigate, because of course goats almost exclusively eat leaves of all of those plants, leaving their thorny branches naked and outstretched to the nearest flesh. Though, we can attest that our pasture plants are beyond tenacious and are effortlessly sending forth a new crop of leaves from those naked branches for spring fodder. They are far from dead, despite how they looked last fall and will take several years of goat grazing to eliminate these species from the pasture area and have dead canes and branches decompose . The other thing to recognize is the obvious; money! Why does it seem like ‘living green’ generally comes with an initial investment of so much ‘green’?! The goats, the shelter, and the fencing all do take time and money. If one looks just at short-term economic pay-offs, a Bush Hog appears the most promising option, and sometimes it may be the best option, but we are looking also at the long term, and hope that with our goats we can reduce future fertilizer inputs (manure can command a pretty penny!), have a more intact and holistic ecosystem than one that is left by plowing, and also have animals that, while doing all this, are producing meat and milk. With enough foresight, maybe these ‘realities’ are worth the pay-off of the investment!

Pegasus and Thor now occupy two shelves in our freezer, and the girls are due to kid in a month, giving us more meat and milk. This year the field’s ecosystem will continue to transform and the soil improve. Our rascal ruminants shall be encouraged to go forth and multiply, to take advantage of all of earth’s delicious treats!

“And what became of those two escape goats?” you ask. Well, we found them on a mountainside, fat and happy, five months later. But that’s another story.