Some farmers contract and pay good money to have goats fenced at the edges of fields to reclaim pasture that has been lost to succession plants. In the farmers’ case, this can mean greatly increased pasture area from old fields and increased profitability for grazing or haying operations. Some towns and government agencies even occasionally contract with goat owners to clear brush and other vegetation on municipal lots, powerline rights-of-way, roadsides, you name it — an eco-friendly, money-saving and more effective method than most other means. All parties benefit.
For wooded acreage, goats have almost as much utility. Goats are effective as a means to removing thickets and underbrush to begin converting land to homestead agricultural or managed woodlot use, and to opening up access before logging efforts and selective harvesting occur. Just like plowing with pigs, raising goats can be a great way for the modern homesteader to use livestock to achieve a desired outcome without expensive machinery. And top it all off with the fact that goats will gain nutritional advantage and thrive, all while improving the land.
Toxic to goats?
First, one must become familiar with plants that are noxious or toxic to goats. Before introducing goats to a browsing area, walk the area to scout out any problem plants.
Let me ease your mind: The plants that are to be avoided are for the most part readily identifiable and familiar to us all.
Potentially goat-toxic trees would include stone fruits such as cherry, peach, apricot and plum. When leaves from stone fruit trees wilt, they can be poisonous due to the accumulation of prussic acid — a cyanide-containing compound. Oak leaves tend to be the most toxic to goats in the spring — they contain gallotoxins that can harm the animal’s kidney once the toxins are converted to a series of acids and alcohols as digestion ensues.
In addition to the tree leaves, rhododendron, iris, buttercup, yew, bracken fern, and rhubarb leaves are perhaps the easiest toxic plants to identify. Other plants to avoid in the pasture include mountain laurel, lamb’s-quarter and pokeweed.
A goat will not die from eating a few oak leaves or a couple fronds of bracken fern. However, if the primary forage and browse are in short supply or absent, the goats will eat lower quality foods, sometimes including noxious or toxic plants. This is especially true if they are confined in an over-grazed area.
Secondly, understand that goats will not naturally stay in one spot until all the brush is trimmed. They will meander while they sample tender new growth, leaves, young twigs or green bark. They go for the browse — browse being both a verb describing the eating habit and the collective name for the vegetation that the goat will consume.
If you have time, a small number of goats, and the interest, you can be the overseer and work without fencing or net.
Goat fencing options
Confining the goats to an area you would like them to work will require a fence that they either cannot easily defeat — field fence type or stock panel type — or an electric fence they respect and have been trained to — for example, temporary electric netting.
Field fence is more or less permanent and will require some time to install. For temporary access, portable electrified netting may be your best bet.
Goat herding (shepherds are for sheep)
Goats are curious, herd-minded creatures.
The alpha doe or wether can at any time head off to new vegetation, and you will see a cascade of goats follow them. If you gradually establish a habit of being with your goats while they browse, they will be more inclined to stay relatively close to you. It’s possible, with work, to become the alpha and herd leader. You can then lead them a few steps to a new area and then stand guard, repeating every few minutes, much as a herdsman might have done long ago.
Before letting goats out to browse, think about how you will guide them or call them back to a secure location, such as the barn or a fenced field.
I suggest using positive reinforcement and reward conditioning. An audible signal is the best method to initiate movement. A whistle can signal that it is time to come back and that a treat is waiting for them in the barn.
Clanging a grain storage lid — like that of a galvanized trash barrel — or a loud two-fingered whistle works well for me. The lid makes a distinct sound that signals the actual opening of the grain bin. If you have a dog, you know how acute its hearing is when you rustle a food wrapper. Goats are the same. And just as a dog exhibits selective hearing when you are not close by, the same goes for goats. This is why you need to condition a select noise with a reward.
When you are ready to signal the goats, either by whistle or clang, make sure you have cleared a way for them, and have the reward already set out. I would guess if several times they don’t get a reward for returning, this will not continue to be a reliable method, and they will tire of “the game with no prize.”
I find the open-browsing is more satisfying than simply getting them into a secure area for the day for a few days running. The more you can connect with your herd, the more you will be attuned to their personalities and health. It does require being relaxed, observant, patient and mindful.
Temple Grandin’s lessons on “flight zones” and how to get a herd moving calmly and naturally come in handy with understanding animal behavior. This is the type of thinking you want to adopt: understanding how you can influence the herd by using proximity and visual influence as a basis for you to direct movement.
I also find that when I need to do more traffic directing, a 4- to 6-foot branch with leaves at the end helps. I use the branches to signal-flag them, block, and guide them to move where I want. A herding dog could also be useful.
Choosing to escort your herd becomes a welcomed pause instead of a chore to schedule. The sounds of rustling leaves, chewing, munching and muffled crunching, as well as watching small and tall clamor for tantalizing leaves are a genuine delight. The breeze and dappled sunlight, a feeling of connectedness with a grazing herd, and the environment surrounding you can be a soothing tonic in your day.
Your alpha wether is often the de facto leader. If you place a bell on his collar, his movements will signal where he is at any given time, audibly alerting you if there is any excited activity. This situation has given rise to the term “bellwether” — the leader of the flock, with a bell on its neck. Bellwethers serve as an indicator and predictor of herd behavior.
Ed Wynn has been raising goats to groom his property for two years now in Waldo County, Maine.