It can definitely be a great deal of work to clear a defensible, fire-resistant space around structures during wildfire season. But don't tell that to the animal “employees” of one local goat-share herd, who are perfectly content to munch on what they consider candy — nuisance invaders like perennial pepper weed.
“They love coming to work … and they enjoy what they do,” said Vince Thomas, founder and owner of Goat Grazers, based in Sparks, Nev.
Goats reduce the need to use herbicides, and they can reach steeper and rockier terrain where machines cannot roll. They are quiet and more economical than machinery in most cases, Thomas added.
The weeds these ruminants eat are more fire-prone than native grasses, so their appetite enhances the health of the ecosystem. But they also can efficiently “mow” the lawn — the friendly animals eat from the top down, not pulling up by the roots.
In the Bay Area, goat herds have even been hired to trim the campus of Google’s headquarters.
Here in the Silver State, Nevada Land Trust provided a grant in 2015 and 2016 for the goats to trim back weeds growing too near the trails at a Washoe County Regional Parks and Open Space site, Anderson Park.
“Goats actually have what’s called a prehensile mouth, which means they can grab around a plant,” Thomas added. “The scotch thistle — it’s that purple thistle that grows around here — it’s very prickly. In Anderson Park, that was one of the first things the goats went after. I thought, ‘My gosh, how are they eating that?’ …It’s sharp, but what they do is they move in and they grab, and they apparently avoid the spines and pick the leaves.”
Thomas clearly knows his stuff. He has 28 years of wildland firefighting experience — as a firefighter with the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District and a member of the Nevada Network of Fire Adapted Communities. He is a graduate of the Langston University E (Kika) De La Garza American Institute for Goat Research. Both he and his wife Diana have completed the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, California Multi-Species Grazing/Browsing Academy.
A Business Based on Burn Season
The business Goat Grazers was launched in 2010.
His daughter, now attending veterinary school, had been raising a few goats while participating in the 4-H program as a young teen. Her firefighter dad was getting ready for the official burn season, carefully cutting and piling weeds for controlled burns. One morning he walked out of his back door, eager to get started.
“There was nothing there … the goats had taken care of it all,” Thomas said.
The family started adopting, raising and breeding goats for the purpose of weed control and to generate fire-safe zones around the property. They found the goats to be naturally good natured and gentle. Thomas then began accepting paying clients; “sharing” the herd for vegetation-control projects.
The earth-friendly idea has spread by word of mouth, and his herd has been hired to complete a growing number of projects — weed clearing, trimming and fire-zone cleanup — with private property owners and several homeowners’ associations. The herd is especially useful when there are hard-to-reach narrow, rough and deep land depressions.
“What I wanted was a nice, docile group that would load in the trailer and unload. And in homeowners’ associations — around houses and kids — I wanted a nice mellow group,” he said.
Free estimates are provided after a site evaluation is conducted. Projects typically last from a few days to 10 days, depending on how high and thick the vegetation has grown.
Either Thomas, his wife or an employee will check on the goats once a day, making sure the temporary fencing is safe and secure and the goats have water. They also move the herd from area to area for clearing.
After a project is completed, Thomas and the client will do a final walk-through to make sure they are happy with the work the goats have done. Goat Grazers moves the herd from one job site directly to the next.
Goat Grazers has also assisted residents with recycling Christmas trees — the goats will eat the trees, which are actually high in vitamin C. Thomas picked up about 1,000 trees from fire stations during the first year they offered vegetative recycling. Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful (KTMB) then asked for assistance the following year. The total of 1,000 has been reduced somewhat, but Goat Grazers will also help with holiday recycling for some of the tree lots. Goats will eat the needles and most of the branches, leaving the main stem and a few inches at each branch’s base.
They can also assist in the recycling of pumpkins and spent grains from breweries.
Goat Grazers has been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council with a USBGC LEEDership Award for its recycling program, and the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy (GOE) has presented Goat Grazers with a Northern Nevada Leadership Award, Certificate of Achievement, Thomas added.
“There’s more than enough work,” he said. “It’s taken off in a big way on the west side of the Sierras, too.” he added.
As to the goat employees’ health plan, the goats' hooves are trimmed regularly, and once a year they are vaccinated. The customer favorability rating has been in the high 90s, Thomas added.
“When I first started this, I would ask, ‘Did they meet your expectations, did they do what I said they would accomplish?’ all that. I tried to get the good feedback,” he said. “And here’s what I got: ‘They’re so cute, when can you bring them back again?'”