Hazleton Standard Speaker: “Goats munch away weeds to clear parks, forests and fields”
By Kent Jackson
Where poison ivy flourishes and invasive plants grow into thorny thickets, land managers across eastern Pennsylvania are sending in scruffy gardeners.
Working in pairs or herds, goats have cleared brush from parks, farms, forests, airports and cemeteries.
While the federal government shutdown idled some herds that had chomped away in national parks in New York and New Jersey, a herder will explain how goats can help local farmers and landowners control plant growth on their land during a talk in Pottsville on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m.
Sandra Kay Miller said she also will offer how-to advice for anyone interested in raising goats to clear their land or start a herding business during the program at the Schuylkill County Agricultural Center, 1202 Ag Center Drive.
Landowners don’t have to keep goats to reap the benefits. They can hire farmers like Miller, who has raised goats for 12 years at Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, Cumberland County.
Miller said goats have cleared fields, farms and forests. They’ve chewed through airports, cemeteries and parks, too.
Goats go where people and heavy equipment flounder – on steep hills, shorelines and swamps.
“They can get in there – a lot of places you can’t get heavy equipment in. They have a very light footprint,” Miller said.
Goats will eat invasive plants like multi-floral rose, thorns and all. Briars, honeysuckle and pig weed are part of their salad bar.
Construction companies have hired goats to prune poison ivy before bulldozers plow through.
“Actually, it’s quite nutritious for them. They don’t contract a rash. They’re voracious eaters,” Miller said.
Goats have patrolled Hugh Moore Park in Easton this summer. They cleared unwanted brush at Gifford Pinchot State Park in York County and King’s Gap State Park in Cumberland County. At Haverford College, they tended to overgrown woods for two weeks this summer.
The Nature Conservancy has used goats to control woody growth at the Acopian preserve in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The conservancy also grazes sheep on warm season grasses near the Pocono Raceway, but has let loose goats on preserves in the past.
King’s Gap first hired Miller’s goats three years ago. In a space where storms leveled pine trees, more sunlight fell and pesky plants such as poison ivy, mile-a-minute weed, Japanese silt grass, Asiatic bittersweet and, tree of heaven sprung up.
“The goats did a good job of clearing the plants so that we could then walk in to the area and remove any remaining undesirable plants by chemical or mechanical means. The goats were the first step of an integrated invasive species removal program,” Scott Hackenburg, manager of the environmental education center at King’s Gap, said by email
Dan Barringer of the Natural Lands Trust released goats on wetlands and steep slopes that otherwise would be difficult to manage at the Crow’s Nest Preserve in Elverson, Chester County, where he is manager.
At Crow’s Nest, Barringer started with a pair of goats, although one has died. Now the remaining goat roams with cattle that graze specific areas.
“I view them as partners, not the sole workers. Sometimes they hit a wall of vegetation they can’t penetrate so I’ll brush cut a trail into it. They follow, widen it and make more connections until it is all opened up,” he said by email.
Goats require some special care. Barringer gives them grain for a treat, changes their bedding and trims their hooves a few times a year. A veterinarian inoculated the goats against rabies and de-worms them. Barringer said goats don’t need heat to survive winter, but they require a shed to keep them dry.
At Painted Hand Farm, Miller didn’t always intend to raise goats. After moving from California, she bought the farm with hopes of starting an orchard. She suffered setbacks growing peaches, berries and raising rabbits before learning that the United States, as of 2000, imported a half-million butchered goats for meat.
“If you are a net importer, there is a market here,” Miller said.
She started with two goats and now has about 200.
To protect her herd, she employs Great Pyrenees dogs, which patrol wide loops around the goats.
The development of portable, electric netting, powered by a car battery, lets her confine goats to areas where customers want brush reduced. Herders have to train their goats, however, to stay away from the electrified fencing, she said.
Unlike cows and sheep that lower their necks and eat plants close to the ground, goats stand on their hind legs and eat above their shoulders.
While they eat brush and weeds, an all-grass diet isn’t healthy for them. Goats forced to subsist on grass develop parasites and can die, which punctures the daydreams of homeowners who thought that a goat could spare them from cutting the grass.
“Goats aren’t going to mow your lawn,” Miller said. “They’re browsers, not grazers.”