When we tell people about our goats, they usually ask if they are meat or dairy goats. Those are the two most common reasons that people acquire goats. While our goats are dairy-type animals, and we have milked our doe goats each spring and summer for their wonderful milk, that's actually not their most important role here on the farm. Our goats serve a much more important purpose - they help us manage our forests in environmentally sustainable, economically viable ways.
One of the reasons farming is so common here is because the land is so productive - a mild climate, good rainfall and young soils are a potent combination. The downside to that is that vacant, unused or neglected lands can very quickly become overgrown with invasive or noxious plants. In our area, that means knotweed, blackberry, thistle and a host of other plants. Some of those plants are poisonous, like tansy ragwort. Others, however, are perfectly palatable. If you happen to be a goat. And therein lay a marvelous win-win for landowners anywhere that brush, thickets or scrub trees threaten to take over the landscape in unwelcome ways.
Many people believe (incorrectly) that goats are grazers like cows and sheep. That is not the case. Goats are more like deer - preferring to browse on low-growing woody growth like bushes, shrubs, low tree branches and brambles. That makes them perfect for clearing land that has been taken over by those species. Better yet, they can clear areas much faster, much more cost effectively, and often without nearly as much collateral damage, as would be the case with either human or machine clearing. The best part? They love the work.
We knew before we even bought this place that we wanted goats. But when we'd lived here awhile, and we got to know our property, we realized that we didn't merely want goats. We needed them. If we were going to have a functional farm someday, goats would be a necessity.
Our farm was neglected for many years, and during that time was colonized and covered by pioneer species such as blackberry, knotweed, salmonberry, vine maple and alder. It makes for a very pretty picture, and we were perfectly content to leave it that way when we first came in. We just wanted a small area for growing things and we were going to leave the rest of it alone. But the more we learned about those species, the more we realized we could not just leave them be.
Blackberry is terribly invasive in this climate, such that it can literally climb the sides of a building in a single year, and within a few years drag that building down if allowed to do so. Salmonberry and other wild cane berry species will sprout up in undisturbed soil and completely fill in any open meadow if allowed to do so. Alder trees are native here, and will put in amazingly fast growth if a break in the forest canopy gives them enough light. In a clearcut area, they can move in and convert it to thick stands of hardwood within only a few years. We had all of those populations, and more, on our property.
We first tried to clear small areas by hand, to make room for things like a garden, a goat yard, etc. If we cleared an area in May then didn't stay on top of it, that growth would have come back by September such that you'd never know we'd cleared it. Then we turned the goats into an area we had cleared once but which had grown over, and voila! They cleared that yard in no time, and better yet, kept it clear. They liked the fresh browse, we liked the free maintenance, and as they say in the movies, a beautiful friendship was born. So we put them to work.
Each year we set aside about 1/4 acre for the goats to clear. We prepare that paddock by cutting a roughly 4' wide perimeter fencing path through dense brush, sometimes using machetes and chainsaws to clear the way. Then we put up standard 48" high field fence to enclose the yard. Each yard is roughly 100' by 100', as terrain allows. Then we turn in the goats.
The first time the goats enter a new yard, you'd think they hadn't eaten in three days. They swarm into that new yard like locusts, eagerly eating anything within reach. We turn them out every morning and bring them in every night . And each day we can see the progress they've made.
As the days and weeks progress, the yard eventually empties of all the easily reachable branches, leaving only the unpalatable, the thickest stems and the tallest branches untouched. At that point I will often go in each morning ahead of them, armed with a small saw, loppers or other brush cutting equipment, and bring down the taller brush that they couldn't otherwise reach. Our small herd of 25 goats (give or take) can clear that quarter acre yard of brush in only a few months. If we were to go in and try to do that by hand, we would have been at it all year, and then we'd be right back where we started only a year later. Letting the goats do the work is, by our measure, one heckuva good deal.
We would never recommend any animal as being perfect for all farms, under all conditions, for all families. That would be simplistic. But we can say that if you have a lot of brushy growth on your property, if you like animals and are willing to learn enough about goats to be competent goat caretakers, then goats may be a great way for you to clear your land. If you already have cows or sheep and you have brushy ground that those animals don't like to graze, goats can be a wonderful addition. And if you have a desire to homestead and you're stuck with less than ideal lands, goats might be a nice way to convert that landscape into usable meat and milk.
As with any kind of livestock, there's a lot to learn, and a lot to do, with goats on the property. But we can safely say that none of our other species are quite as adept at clearing the lands of the brush we have. Our other species can each follow behind the goats into those newly cleared yards and add their own special characteristics to the yard, which we have also used to good effect. But no one breaks new ground for us as well as the goats do. And the best part is, they enjoy it so much.