Got some brushy ground that’s growing thorns, poison ivy, ticks and chiggers for you? Is it daunting to clear? Rather not go for a “shock and awe” herbicide attack? Bring in Goat Busters, the environmentally sensitive way to reclaim land.
Jace Goodling of Afton, who was primarily a contractor building second homes in Wintergreen, was also raising Kiko goats, a meat breed of goats developed in New Zealand. He had developed a fairly substantial group of cull animals, those not ideally suited for breeding.
In 2008, when the market for new home construction collapsed, he looked at that bunch one day and thought that because this area is fairly ecologically minded it might go for a goat brush-clearing business. That would give the herd fresh pasture, too.
His main plan for the goats is selling them as meat animals and developing a registered herd. A pedigreed doe, which will usually give birth to twins every year (otherwise it’s a cull), is worth $500 to $600. Goodling’s does are bred to deliver kids when they are two years old.
Goats were brought to New Zealand by sailors because they ate little, drank little water and and provided meat, milk and fiber on the voyage. “The tendency was to just let them go and then catch some when you were ready to leave,” Goodling explained. “Some enterprising New Zealanders decided to make a million dollars on gullible Americans and thought they would develop the newest fad breed of goats. They developed Kiko by breeding the feral goats with dairy goats and brought them to the U.S. during the 1990s. But they really did develop a superior breed of goat. It takes very little maintenance. I do very little worming, almost no hoof trimming. My goats are out on clean forage most of the time and most of these goats have never seen a needle in their entire lives. No shots. The more I can produce a genetically strong, parasite-tolerant goat, the less I have to rely on chemicals and wormers and things that are losing their effectiveness every day.”
“Eighty-three percent of meat eaters worldwide identify goat as their primary meat,” Gooding noted. “It’s the healthiest red meat and I think it’s their diet. They are browsers and they are eating high on deep-rooted plants. They are getting plenty of nutrition.”
He sells slaughter animals in the winter. Slaughter weight for a Niko goat is somewhere between 40 and 60 pounds. About 55 percent of the carcass trims out as meat, Goodling said. The meat structure is similar to venison but retains its juiciness better. The market for goat meat is getting stronger in northern cities and Goodling hauls his animals to livestock sales in Pennsylvania, where they bring nearly four times the value they have in Virginia.
He has 100 goats now. “I’m going full bore into herd building, sort of a little blindly,” he said.
About half of Goodling’s herd, 53 does and kids, has been munching on undergrowth just west of Devils Backbone Brewery near Nellysford. The overgrown former nursery on the site is being cleared in sections to serve as a campsite for the Festy music festival set for Oct. 5-7. After the goats get done, another crew pulls out the stripped limbs and debris. But the goats have cleared away the site and workers can see what needs cleaning up and actually get to it. Meanwhile the goats have left pellet-like fertilizer everywhere, too.
The goats are inside nearly 1,200 feet of net-style electric fence, enclosing about ¾ of an acre. It’s charged with a 12-volt car battery and it’s as much about keeping predators out as it is keeping the goats in. Two Great Pyrenees dogs guard the herd. “They were born with the goats and they have never been apart from them,” said Goodling.
His Airedale dog, Trouble, has the job of keeping the goats inside fences and capturing any that get loose. “We were moving goats from a job in Crozet to a job in Ivy, and there was a doe and a kid that wouldn’t go in the chute to go in the trailer. We chased those two for half an hour and couldn’t catch them.
“It was 100 degrees out, and I was so mad at these goats. Trouble was running around, barking up a storm and I decided ‘fine, let’s give it a try.’ I told her to “get the goats,” with no idea what she would actually do.
“She did that little terrier hop and went straight for the kid. I thought, okay, this might be the end of this kid, and I was fully prepared for that. I ran after her yelling ‘be gentle, be gentle’ and she caught the kid with her mouth and pinned it on the ground. Trouble never bit it. She was holding it against the ground. I picked it up, nothing wrong with it, not a mark on it anywhere, and carried it to the trailer.
“I called her back. Sat her down again. Told her to ‘get the goat,’ to go after the big one. She took after the big goat, which proceeded to lead her through the thickest bramble that she could find. Couldn’t shake her. All of a sudden the goat stopped, turned around and butted Trouble. Rolled her across the ground. I thought, ‘okay, this is it.’ Well, let me tell you, a baseball doesn’t come off a bat any faster than she jumped up off the ground and bit that goat right on the nose. To which the goat responded by butting her and rolling her again, and then for the next 20 or 30 seconds, there was hell and fury between that dog and the goat, which ended with the goat in a totally defensive posture, frozen stiff, and Trouble just bouncing around as if to say, ‘okay, your move. I gotcha. Come on, give me something to go for.’ And I walked over, grabbed the goat by the horns and dragged her to the trailer.”
Goodling says it’s been that way ever since. If he has trouble with a goat, he just brings Trouble in and now the goats know. When he brings Trouble in “the goats go bolting for the chute and the ones that aren’t so familiar, they learn that it is just easier to go in the chute the first time than to fight an Airedale that really wants to get you in that chute.”
Trouble patrols Goodling’s farm as well. For the first few days after they are born, new kids are small enough to fit between the gate post and the gate. “They slip out. So the first thing every morning, as soon as I let Trouble out, she bolts down the hill to put all the kids back in their fields. She checks them every time we get back to the farm. I park by the house, and she goes running down the hill and puts them all back in. That comes to an end as soon as they are bigger.”
It takes four to seven days to clear an acre at his stocking rate. The goats teem around branches that are within reach, stripping them of leaves and nibbling off tender shoots. Goodling checks the goats every day, feeds them a little grain to keep them tame and friendly, and refreshes their water.
“Ninety-nine percent of the folks that we work for get a huge entertainment value out of the experience. They spend a lot of time watching the goats and the dogs and the babies play – and watch their weeds disappear.”
Goodling looks over project sites for poisonous plants, a lesson he learned by having six goats die on one job. “There are a number of poisonous plants or plants that are toxic to goats—mainly Mountain Laurel, Azalea, Rhododendrons, and Yew.
“The biggest bad lesson that I’ve learned,” Goodling said, “is that goats can eat English Ivy, by itself. And wisteria, by itself. No problem. But, the combination of Wisteria and English Ivy in a goat’s stomach causes the inability of the gut to absorb oxygen with the net result being that the goat bloats and dies in about an hour and fifteen minutes. That was news to experts at Virginia Tech, too. They had no idea. My vet at Commonwealth Vet Clinic in Waynesboro had no idea and they usually keep up pretty well. I called a friend who’s a big goat farmer in Texas and his vet confirmed that the two combined are deadly.”
Goodling charges $575 to bring in the goats for a week and $45 per man-hour to set up the fence. If the goats need more than a week to do their job, there is an additional daily charge.
“It’s a different world now,” he said. He means the economy is not what we once expected it would be. “It’s find a niche or carve one out. We found the niches are almost filled. So Goat Busters is carving a niche,” said Goodling, 51, who, pushed by necessity, finds himself on the frontier of new agricultural enterprises.