I live next door to goats.
I can hear the living lawnmowers bleating across the paddock, and I can see them, or more accurately their appetites, at work.
Salt and Pepper are seven-month-old brothers adopted by my neighbours to help manage the lawns and weeds in their front paddock. Handled by my neighbours since birth, the pair
are exceptionally friendly and confident around people. “They use us as a footstool,” says adopted human mum Jodie, “to get to the good leaves from the maple trees.”
And, goats can eat. They’re considered browsers or foragers, not grazers like their sheep relatives, who tend to keep their heads down to eat. Goats look all around, and have a reputation for breaking loose and leaving a void of devoured vegetation in their wake.
Goats are said to be highly intelligent, inquisitive and determined. Their problem-solving capacity means they quickly detect faults in fencing...
However, this reputation for senseless escape artistry and endless consumption is not entirely deserved. Goats are said to be highly intelligent, inquisitive and determined. Their problem-solving capacity means they quickly detect faults in fencing and any raised vantage points will provide a launching pad to leap from. As goats only become intent on escaping when their diverse nutritional needs are not met, the scope of plants they need to stay healthy is broader than that of other livestock and without it, they become desperate and behavioural issues can arise.
A mismanaged herd (not Salt and Pepper) in the neighbourhood became wild and inbred from seven to thirty-seven head over the course of two years. They ate their way through the immediate plant matter and then continued down the valley. The integrity of fencing between adjacent properties became an issue as the herd pursued greener pastures. They were unable to be caught and, therefore, were said to have met a sad fate. A tragedy, as properly managed goats can be incredibly helpful.
Regenerative land management specialist Stefanie Hildmann hosts ‘Goats for Weed Control’ workshops from her property in Foster North. Stefanie has a small herd of six goats and uses them as a working example within a broader regenerative scheme.
Goats are ace at weed control, as they chew unwanted plants into oblivionand can access difficult areas. Management needs to vary between properties and Stefanie is adamant there’s no one-size-fits-all method to keeping them.
“I prefer to show people how I manage my goats,” she says, “rather than tell them [how to manage theirs].”
Stefanie’s workshops have proved incredibly popular with 11 sessions held since last September. They draw a diverse crowd of hobby farmers, large-scale property owners, commercial farmers and people who are considering adding goats to their farming practice or seeking guidance with their existing herd.
I ask Stefanie if there are common questions that arise when it comes to keeping goats for managing weeds.
“There is so much confusion,” says Stefanie, “with the main misconception being that they are low maintenance and eat absolutely anything.”
Goat feet need to be trimmed every six weeks and if they don’t have access to the right nutrients, they become susceptible to intestinal parasites, which lead to anaemia. They have dietary preferences for palatable plants that might not be edible year-round. For example, they might be more likely to eat blackberry bushes only when the plants are young or when the berries ripen.
There is also the ‘double-edge sword’ of penning them, as Stefanie goes on to explain, “The difficult land goats are brought in to maintain, such as steep hills and deep valleys, is often difficult land for people to fence.”
There are also other factors to consider, including rotating the herd between zones so that the land can rest and growing or buying additional fodder to supplement their diet.
Yet, when properly planned, and the decision to keep goats (yes, plural – Stefanie explains that herd animals are best kept in multiples) comes to fruition and is an immensely rewarding experience. Stefanie has observed goats doing a sensational job in clearing ragwort and thistle, which are both considered noxious weeds in this region.
Hot tips? Get your fencing right, cover their nutritional needs and trim their feet. And of course, go to Stefanie’s workshop before anythingelse. Then brace yourself for unexpected delights. Goats’ high intelligence, combined with appropriate handling, can result in a behaviour that one might see with domesticated animals, such as a dog. For instance, Salt and Pepper run to the gate and call out whenever they see someone approaching.
“How smart and sensitive they are,” says Jodie, “has been the best surprise.”