For clearing underbrush, get your goat

David Menconi
The Detroit News

Raleigh, N.C. — – If you have an overgrown piece of property that needs clearing, there are some obvious and odious ways to do it through hard manual labor or noxious chemicals. But there’s a third way that’s easier on your back, friendlier to the environment and also highly entertaining:

Call in the goats.

Carrboro, N.C.-based Goat Squad is an outfit specializing in “conservation grazing” or clearing out unwanted vegetation the old-fashioned way, by eating it (another is Rent A Goat, although it does large properties only). There are a few things that are dangerous for goats to eat. In particular, ornamental plants like azaleas and rhododendrons are poisonous to them.

Poison ivy, however, is no problem. And kudzu is a delicacy, as N.C. State University’s Jean-Marie Luginbuhl discovered back in 2003. The university had some land on Centennial campus that needed clearing without pesticides because of a protected species of mollusk, and goats turned out to be the perfect solution.

“If you don’t want to use herbicides to clean up brush, goats are the best,” said Luginbuhl, a professor of crop sciences at N.C. State. “They’re very, very effective. You see all these big leaves and think there’s a lot of biomass there. But they go through it quite quickly. They especially love kudzu. It’s very nutritious, and they’ll even eat the terminal stems like spaghetti.”

Long-term, about four goats can keep an acre of kudzu under control. And as far as short-term clearing, I can personally vouch for goats’ effectiveness. My Raleigh backyard is essentially a grove of large oak trees, and not enough sunlight reaches the ground for grass to grow. But enough light gets through for a semi-impenetrable jungle of underbrush and weedy, fast-growing trees to have grown up.

The yard’s back corners were thick enough to be almost impassable, but the 19-animal herd that Goat Squad brought in made short work of it in less than 24 hours. The whole thing was mesmerizing to watch for the whole neighborhood.

It’s worth noting that goat rental is not a particularly low-cost option. Goat Squad installs temporary electrical fencing to contain the herd, and the hours spent putting that up and taking it down (which is billed on an hourly per-person basis, plus mileage) can double the $400 flat fee for renting about 20 goats for about 24 hours.

But the fun bonus to the whole thing is how many neighbors renters meet.

“They’re very socially influential,” said Diana Tetens, Goat Squad’s owner. “I can’t tell you how many times people have said things like, ‘In 10 years, I never met any of my neighbors — until now.’ ”