Should You Use Goats for Vegetation Maintenance?

June 17, 2022

Farm Life Friday's | The Editors

BUCKHANNON, WV - Many cattle producers spend a large amount of money each year to control undesired plants (weeds and brush).


Producers incur the primary cost by purchasing herbicides and hiring equipment and operators to clear brush and reclaim lands that have become unable to support cattle at an acceptable production level. In order for today's producers to have a chance at making an almighty dollar, every acre of ground capable of being productive must be used.


Enter goats.


Goats possess a unique characteristic that separates them from almost all other types of livestock. They would rather eat brush and weeds than grass because they are browsers, whereas cattle are grazers. Browse makes up approximately 60 percent of a goat's diet but only about 10 to 15 percent of a cow's.


Another advantage of goats is that, unlike a bulldozer, they control brush and weeds without disturbing the existing grass and soil. They also do not leave synthetic chemicals that could run off into lakes and streams or be ingested by a cow or other animal.


These characteristics make goats ideal candidates for multispecific-many species-rotational grazing. The goats can be rotated in to eliminate most of the undesirable vegetation (from a cow's perspective), and then the cows can come behind them to graze the grass without having to pick through as many weeds.


Goats are very active foragers, able to cover a wide area in search of scarce plant materials. Their small mouth, narrow muzzle and split upper lips enable them to pick small leaves, flowers, fruits and other plant parts, thus choosing only the most nutritious available feed.


As natural browsers and given the opportunity, goats will select over 60% of their daily diet from brush and woody perennials (multiflora rose, saplings, small deciduous trees, black locust, briars, brambles, sumac, privet, honeysuckle), and broadleaf plants (pigweed, dock, horseweed, plantain, lambsquarter, etc.) over herbaceous species such as fescue, bluegrass, orchardgrass, crabgrass, bermudagrass.


The ability to utilize browse species, which often have thorns and an upright growth habit with small leaves tucked among woody stems, is a unique characteristic of the goat compared to heavier, less agile ruminants. Goats even sometimes climb into trees or shrubs to consume the desired forage. In spite of their grazing preferences, goats can be grazed on pasture alone.


The feeding strategy of goats appears to be to select grasses when the protein content and digestibility are high, but to switch to browse when the latter overall nutritive value may be higher. This ability is best utilized under conditions where there is a broad range in the digestibility of the available feeds, giving an advantage to an animal which is able to select highly digestible parts and reject those materials which are low in quality.


Goats have excellent reproductive ability. If goats are given the opportunity to breed and reproduce, they typically produce an average of two kids per doe yearly. The producer can keep the big ones to eat brush and weeds, sell the little ones to pay for the big ones, and eventually control the brush at minimal cost, no cost, or possibly even a little profit.


Goats are not expense free. When kept in the same pasture more than three months, they must be wormed every three weeks or so. In order to effectively eliminate brush and weeds, the goats must be kept in the area to be controlled until all of the undesirable plant species are eliminated. The key word here is kept.


Goats have a tremendous propensity to roam. If they had their way, they would eat a few bites, trot 10 yards, eat a few more bites, trot-you get the idea. By midday, the entire herd would probably be about 2 miles away from where they were supposed to be. Then as evening came along, they might show up again when all of the coyote howling scared them, if they hadn't been chased or eaten already.


It is possible, even probable, that you will have to modify existing fences just to keep the goats in the desired area and predators out. If they can get their head through a fence, they can probably get their body through it too.


Hog wire doesn't count, however. If they got their head through some of that, they would remain there stuck and screaming until you came and got them out, at which time they would fight you. All this goes to show that, although owning and using goats can have fairly significant drawbacks, it can be beneficial from a brush control standpoint.


So if you don't mind changing your routine a bit and are willing to manage goats properly, they could save you a lot of money on brush and weed control and possibly help make a little extra cash along the way.