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Get Your Goat!
by Cathy Jean Maloney - August 2015

 “Goats are the new bison,” says Kim Hunter, owner of The Green Goats, a goat rental service that provides a green alternative to invasive plant removal. The Midwest prairie landscape was once shaped by natural fires and grazing bison. Now only carefully controlled burns sputter life into prairie fragments, and a handful of bison remain as zoo curiosities. 

Enter the goats. These Old World herbivores, arguably the first domesticated animals, have been serving humankind for centuries. Nimble and natural climbers, goats can reach places mechanized lawn equipment cannot. From airports to municiple parks where goats are used to tame grass or clear invasives, land stewards are rediscovering the benefits of goats over gas guzzlers.


A herd of goats at the Daniels’ suburban home keeps invasives under control. Goats’ personalities vary, but all are hungry.

With her lean tanned physique and piercing blue eyes, Kim fits a Hollywood casting call for a southwestern rancher. Instead, she grew up in the suburbs and acquired her love of animals from an inspiring high school science teacher whose classroom included rabbits, snakes and a great horned owl.

In college she switched her major from veterinary science to filmmaking, but her love of nature ultimately won out. In 2007, Kim obtained her first goats which, when not working, live with her and her husband on a Wisconsin farm.

She now has a herd of 150, mostly Spanish goats. “Spanish goats came with the conquistadors in the sixteenth century,” Kim explains. “They have a better instinct for foraging.” The Spanish Goat Association (spanishgoats.org) claims the breed is “strong, fertile, and parasite-resistant.”

They’re also darn cute. They come in a variety of colors, from black to white to brown to any mix thereof. There are little ones (kids), males (bucks) and females (does). And, yes, even though Kim is a businesswoman, many of the goats have names. Twerp is the black one whose pencil-neck and head always pokes above the others. Queenie lies regally on the grass. Little Victor is a charmer who, when a kid, routinely fell asleep on the couch with Kim while she was watching David Letterman.


Kim Hunter cradles a goat. Behind her is the Daniels’ house separated by the electric fence.

How to Rent a Goat

According to Hunter’s studies, a single goat will eat between 150 to 300 square feet of – just about everything – per day. “Goats prefer woody vegetation,” she says. “They love buckthorn.” This is good news for landowners who have natural areas infested with buckthorn and other invasive plants.

Of course, goats do not selectively eat invasives – all plants are fair game. Hence, you would not want to turn the goats loose in your manicured bed or wildflower garden. But, as Kim points out, “If you’ve got buckthorn, your wildflowers are gone anyway.”  Better to eliminate the buckthorn, and then let the wildflowers spring back to life.

When a prospective customer calls, Kim drives out to the site to inspect the conditions and determine the size of herd needed. Then, as schedule and landowner needs dictate, she loads the goats into her truck and delivers the herd to the site. She will set up an electrified fence to create a pen for the goats and, as required, wrap protective material around desirable trees.

The landowner’s responsibilities include checking the fence twice daily. Typically, there are no problems, but a large wind event could knock trees or heavy branches into the fence and cause a breach. The goats’ water tub must be filled, and landowners are required to notify Kim immediately of any problems with the fence or goats. She will promptly return to remedy the situation.

Mostly, the landowner can just sit back and enjoy the pastoral scene of goats grazing.


Goats can reach up high to nibble on branches. Any tree is fair game.

Goats in Action

Kathy and Art Daniels live on three lovely acres. Gracious gardens, designed by Mariani Landscape, expand to naturalistic areas at the outskirts of the property. Despite their best efforts, the area often became infested with poison ivy and buckthorn. Partly due to her kindhearted nature, Kathy became interested in the green goat alternative. 

 “I love animals,” she explained, noting that she often babysits her grown children’s dogs. With 15 grandchildren, the Daniels’ home is at once elegant and family-friendly. The goats – who have dined at the Daniels’ landscape once a year for three years and must sense the welcoming vibe – are back this year for another visit.

A stone’s throw from the house, 39 goats are peacefully grazing amid their fenced-in enclosure. In less than a week they have already cleared a wide swath and have been relocated to a new patch. There are kids and bucks and does of all shapes and sizes. Because the grazing area is interspersed with desirable trees, the heftier 300-pound goats that can reach far up into trees were assigned to other client projects.

The goats munch away – it is surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Some lie down after they’ve had enough – much like couch potatoes after too many Doritos. Goats are ruminants – mammals with multi-chambered stomachs – whereby, without getting too graphic, food is regurgitated and rechewed.

By chewing the cud, and through bacterial action in the goat’s digestive system, Kim says it’s commonly accepted that “goats digest 99 per cent of the seeds they eat.” This, too, is great news for eradication of buckthorn, a plant notorious for seed dispersal.

 “They eat from dawn ’till dusk and they “fertilize” all the time,” Kathy discloses.

The goats stay out in all kinds of weather, huddling under a tree in heavy rains or when seeking shade. They will graze “as long as there’s something green to eat,” Kim says.

After their sojourn at the Daniels’ home, the goats can declare a full tummy and a job well done. The pesky buckthorn may require another season or so of goat munching before it finally succumbs. Meanwhile, as winter winds defoliate all the plants, the goats return to Kim’s farm where they eat hay in the barn or stroll about the pasture. Another day, another dinner.   

Goat Guide

Goat’s Eyes: The pupil of a goat is not round, but rather a horizontal slit, which may increase their field of vision. Kim says goats “have good night vision. They need to see when coyotes are nearby.”

Kids: A goat litter typically contains twins or sometimes triplets.

Diet: Although they can quickly clear a pasture, goats do not eat everything, especially not the proverbial tin can. “They might play with the can,” Kim offers.

Lifespan: Goats live about as long as dogs – twelve or so years.

Horns: Unlike antlers which are typically seen on male members of the deer family, goats’ horns are permanent and worn by both sexes.

 

A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXI Issue IV. Photography by Ron Capek.

 

 


Cathy Jean Maloney is a senior editor with State-by-State Gardening and has authored several books.

 

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