Green Gobbling Goats

The goats are on a walk about through the forests at Leafhopper Farm! Bran, his sister Branwin, their mother Brownie, and Nigerian Dwarf Buck Brock are all feasting on the end of the summer lushness. Though goats can be very destructive to shrubs and sensitive flora, on a walk about, the hungry horned ungulates move through the space with some shepherding, and get to munch briefly as they transition through the underbrush.

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All the goats in this herd look to Brownie for guidance on what’s good to eat. Since she is the lead goat, everyone else follows her, so if I push her out of an area, the rest of the crew follows her eagerly. If she starts eating on a shrub, everyone else wants to check it out, learning as they go. Bran and his sister Branwin are goat-lings, meaning they are two year olds. At three, they will be adult goats.

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Bran is a wether, meaning he was castrated as a young kid. Though he will never breed, he’s still going to be a large male goat, with the weight to push over sapling trees. He’s already savvy about his height, and reaches up into the higher canopy without hesitation to find “the good stuff”. Branwin is also reaching up, but less enthusiastically. Her mother Brownie also reaches up less. Bran has no hesitation, and will actively seek out higher shrubs and young trees more readily.

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While walking with the goats in the wooded spaces of the property, I noted an increase in wild ungulate browsing sign. Black-tail deer move through the thicker vegetation around the farm where they can find good cover. We’ll be building a good stream buffer fence to create more intentional space for the deer to forage, and to prevent livestock from damaging more sensitive species. Since the farm already manages buffer space to prevent over predation, the fence is purely a formality, but will also help set firm boundaries along Weiss Creek, our salmon bearing stream.

It is good to let the goats have a good walk about from time to time. The land is bountiful enough to allow this luxury, but supervision is important, especially near riparian spaces. A goat will eat the best, most rare species first if left to it’s own devices. Our resident buck, Brock, is particularly good at stripping the bark off fruit trees, which in the native flora of our region includes Bitter Cherry Prunus emarginata, Cascara Rhamnus purshiana, and Indian Plum (Osoberry) Oemleria cerasiformis, to name a few.

Today, because there was so much good leafy vegetation, no goat was compelled to strip bark, but if left in a space for too long, goats will begin debarking trees. I can’t stress enough how frustrating it is to see animals cooped up on bare ground without any vegetation to brows on. “Sacrifice areas” are well known to anyone who keeps animals. They are places on bear earth where animals can be penned for easy management. These places are usually found around a central barn or shed where the animals can seek cover.

At Leafhopper Farm, there are no sacrifice pens, but the goats do have stalls to return to at night and during heavy rain. I guess the stalls are the sacrifice area, but they are shelters; often cleaned out and replaced with fresh straw so that manure does not build up. Outside the barn, the goats are tethered around the property to forage on an abundance of blackberry Rubus armeniacus and Rubus laciniatus.

It’s really a numbers game. If I had more than 5 goats on the farm, we’d run out of forage through the winter and need to buy a bunch of extra hay and other baled nutrition for the animals. That would cost more than the goats are worth, and mean a lack of holistic sustainability. Importing nutrition means the land is not fertile enough to support the animals, and that’s a challenge. Leafhopper already buys grain for egg laying chickens, though feeds far less than average because of readily available pasture and supplements of meal worms.

As these animals move through the landscape in a rotational system, the land gets a boost of manure and some much needed munching back. We’ve been using goats to manage the blackberry for the past five years, and it’s the best slow clearing I’ve ever seen.

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This picture shows how the goats can push back the blackberries while still allowing the land to remain lush. Around this Red Alder Alnus rubra, the bramble is at knee height, making it easier for people and animals to access the area. In fact, since the goats first moved through here a few years ago, knocking down the overgrown blackberry, the Black-tail deer Odocoileus hemionus have moved in, enjoying the lower growing succulent plants. In the background, where the blackberry is still over head height, there is no recent deer brows. The shrubs are impenetrable, and with good reason; Weiss Creek and its vegetative buffer lay just beyond.

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