Larry Cihanek feeds his "green" goats at their first job at Fort Wadsworth overlooking the New York City skyline in 2007.
Photo courtesy of green-goats.com.
Lawn mowers, tree trimmers, weed whackers, invasive species specialists - these are not just employment opportunities for people. Livestock are on the job in locales around the world.
Goats graze at Google, sheep lunch on the lawns of Paris parks, and cattle help restore wetlands for bog turtles in New Jersey.
Larry Cihanek's "Green Goats" have been featured in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, on all the major television networks, and in a guest appearance on Animal Planet's "Treehouse Masters." For seven years, Cihanek has hauled his goats - hired as environmentally friendly vegetation removers - to National Historic Sites in the greater New York City/New Jersey area.
"I am a businessman, making a living bringing the goats I love to interesting places and letting them do what they do best ... eat everything," Cihanek says.
Cihanek was one of eight people responding to a "Seeking NYC goat herder" email sent to 400 New York goat owners. The other seven said the project couldn't be done.
His first job in 2007 was to eliminate plant overgrowth - poison ivy, Japanese knotweed and mugwort - damaging a Civil War gun battery at Fort Wadsworth. Every year the goats make the trip from Cihanek's 40-acre farm in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to maintain the site.
Cihanek's motto is: "We use what nature provides to get rid of what nature provides too much of."
At the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, N.Y., the goats - mostly Nubians, once dubbed "weapons of grass destruction" by the New York Daily News after an escape into a Homeland Security area at Fort Wadsworth - restored a sloped landscape to its historic tidiness within four months.
In 2012, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation put out a request for proposals to landscape restoration companies for 20 goats to clear phragmites from 2 acres of Staten Island to begin converting a former landfill into Freshkills Park. The six-week rental and fencing contract totaled $20,625. Fellow goat herders good-naturedly commented: "Good work if you can get it!" and "Must be union goats!"
Dave Hayes, natural resources manager at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, puts the costs in perspective in a Wall Street Journal video, saying, "We could easily have spent $15,000 on a crew; the goats, equipment and labor were $9,000."
This year, Cihanek has approximately 60 goats at 11 publicly owned properties. He holds a Central Contractor Registration, a prerequisite for applying for federal government contract work.
This landscape shows the before and after effects of Larry Cihanek's Green Goats vegetation removal service.
Photo courtesy of green-goats.com.
Sheep: Invasive species specialists
Dr. Gary S. Kleppel, biodiversity, conservation and policy program director at the University at Albany, SUNY, is a scientist and a shepherd, so his research naturally focuses on developing grazing protocols for targeted ecosystem restoration.
From June to August 2008, Kleppel used Romney sheep to restore wetland flora to a wet meadow infested with the invasive species purple loosestrife and reed canarygrass. Three ewes were rotated through four 0.1-acre paddocks every two to three days.
"The purple loosestrife cover declined by 40.7 percent, compared to areas not grazed. After grazing, the number of native species was 20 percent higher in the grazed paddocks compared with ungrazed areas," Kleppel notes. "The following year, species richness was up 62 percent.
"The high stocking density [two to four times more livestock biomass than conventional grazing] and high-frequency rotations [every two to three days] we employed mimic the distribution in time and space of wild herbivorous herding mammals on a landscape," Kleppel explains.
This ewe is part of targeted grazing ecosystem restoration research by Dr. Gary Kleppel.
Photo by Dr. Gary Kleppel.
He adds that there are 244 domestic breeds of sheep, each adapted to different landscapes and terrains, allowing for selective matching of breed to need.
Kleppel's goal is to develop an herbivore grazing protocol as part of an integrated invasive species management approach for controlling unwanted vegetation and restoring healthy ecosystems on New York state lands.
Goats in the sugar woods
"Wisely controlled browsing of Northeast woodlands by goat herds may increase incomes and reduce costs to goat owners, decrease woody plant control costs to woodlot owners, and reduce the forest area treated with herbicides," says Peter Smallidge, Goats in the Woods project leader.
From 1997 to 2000, a total of 735 goats were placed at Arnot Forest, other woodlots and abandoned vineyards in New York to measure their impact on invasive plant species.
At Arnot Forest, groups of 20 meat goats rotated through 0.25-acre areas with electric net fencing. They were provided portable shelter, checked daily and fed supplements. Each paddock was monitored daily to assess any harm to mature trees.
"My interest was primarily in whether goats could control woody brush in the understory of sugar bushes and forests without damaging mature trees," says Smallidge, a Cornell Cooperative Extension forestry specialist. "An unanticipated outcome was the selective avoidance of goats for the bark of sugar maple trees, and the potential utility for goats to control brush in the sugar bush of maple syrup producers."
He cautions, however, that goats consume all seedlings, including sugar maple.
"We defined effectiveness as an integrated result measured by goat health, weight gains comparable to animals fed ad libidum, the mortality of significant numbers - 40 to 95 percent, depending on species - of undesirable saplings, and the lack of damage to stems greater than 4 inches in diameter of commercially valuable species," Smallidge explains.
Project collaborator tatiana Stanton, Northeast Sheep and Goat Marketing Program director and goat extension associate at Cornell, says, "The juvenile goats - 3 to 6-month-old kids - used in the first two years of the project showed minimal to modest rates of gain over the 10 weeks in the woods. The adult goats added in the last year maintained their weight."
All of the goats were sold as good-quality market animals.
"Most of the off-farm teams found it practical to use groups of about 25 goats rotating through 1 to 2-acre paddocks. In most cases, with sparse understory where we were using the goats to girdle striped maple and beech, the goats were fed supplemental feed at a rate of about 2.5 percent of body weight," Stanton notes.
The goats in the abandoned vineyard, dense with multiflora rose brambles and Concord grapes, are still at work, but geriatric now.
The Goats in the Woods Handbook includes practical checklists, a goat care basics overview, and how to assess woodland conditions for goats. The final report for the project includes information on optimal group and paddock sizes, rotation, supplementary diets for brush-clearing goats and an economic analysis.
Ph.D. student Caroline Girard-Cartier and her herding dog, Jinx, move a prescribed grazing flock.
Photo by Dr. Gary Kleppel.
Cattle make habitat for endangered turtles
Ecologist Jason Tesauro describes the bog turtle, with a federal status of threatened, as "small enough to wade in the puddle of a cow's hoofprint."
He worked with a New Jersey farmer to fence a 3-acre fen overrun by reed canarygrass and grazed three cows there. After one season, the cows had transformed the area into "superb bog turtle habitat" that needs a continuous regimen of light cattle grazing to maintain.
Tesauro fenced a 35-acre section of a limestone fen on which 25 cattle successfully reduced purple loosestrife cover by as much as 40 percent and shrub cover by 33 percent. More importantly for Tesauro, the cows created habitat that suits bog turtles.
Business planning: Consider production factors first
Not everyone is suited to the work, so what makes a good livestock rental entrepreneur?
The animals need water, shelter and feed supplements. You need access to check them frequently (daily) to monitor their health, adjust fencing and check their "landscaping" progress. Palatability, poisonous plants, rabies, parasites and predators - wild, domestic and human - are all concerns.
The risk of escape must be calculated. Rent-A-Ruminant LLC owner Tammy Dunakin of Vashon Island, Wash., says: "With goats, you always have to think of every conceivable thing they might do and be prepared for their tricky moves."
"This is particularly important in urban areas, public parks, etc.," Cihanek adds.
Stanton says, "From my experiences with the three-year-long Goats in the Woods Project, I would say that clearing land with goats is a pretty labor-intensive business that most small ruminant farmers do not have the time or interest to commit to."
This goat stands to reach higher browse as it begins its work of clearing the understory in the woods at Arnot Forest.
Photo by Peter Smallidge.
Smallidge notes: "Of the cooperators on our project, the full-time goat producers typically had significant difficulty arranging their schedules to provide time to tend the off-farm goats. Either the producer worked extra hours to allow for the added activities, or the project goats weren't closely monitored, resulting in damage to desired forest trees. Goat producers with inadequate land of their own and adequate time to manage off-site herds, or goat producers with mature herds and who seek added income, are the most likely prospects for providing goat control of vegetation."
Grazing for dollars
If you feel up to the animal management challenge and time commitment required by grazing for rent, develop a business plan. Each producer will have different overhead costs. Variable factors include distance to job sites and how much setup is required before the animals arrive.
Now in her ninth year in business, Dunakin estimates her gross income at more than $100,000, noting that income potential is regional and she benefits from serving the urban-suburban areas of the Northwest U.S. Her client mix includes private, corporate and government landowners.
Her rates start at $725 per day plus tax, with a one-time $350 minimum mobilization fee, depending on location and herd size. She estimates that 60 goats must graze three to five days to clear 0.25 acre of moderately dense brush.
Any number of entities may have an interest in using livestock to control vegetation, from private and government conservationists and environmentalists, utility right-of-way line managers and construction companies to land trusts, neighborhood associations, historic site managers, and foresters interested in sugar bush management or creating firebreaks.
Holstein cows graze amid the cattails and Queen Anne's lace in wet meadows to help restore bog turtle habitat in New Jersey.
Photo courtesy of Jason Tesauro Consulting.
Key selling points include cost savings, the eco-friendliness of livestock and, for some sites, the publicity and goodwill the animals generate.
Cihanek estimates that by using goats on difficult sites, land managers save 50 to 75 percent of the cost of conventional gas-powered hand-clearing methods.
Grazing for Rental Customers
Looking for customers to rent your animals? Try starting with the following:
- Conservation organizations interested in invasive species control
- Construction companies
- Land trusts
- National Park Service and all levels of park managers
- The Nature Conservancy
- Natural heritage programs
- Private landowners with overgrown land
- State and federal environmental agencies
- Sugar bush and woodlot owners
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- USDA NRCS conservation initiatives
"Goats will find their greatest profit potential with audiences with parcels less than 75 acres - too small for a favorable economy of scale with herbicide use - and woodlot owners, like maple producers or suburban owners, who wish to avoid herbicides for business or personal reasons," Smallidge suggests.
Tesauro, whose consulting focuses almost exclusively on bog turtle restoration and includes the planning, advising, supervising and monitoring of federally funded prescribed grazing projects, says, "The USDA Wetlands Reserve Program [currently with 2.6 million acres and more than 11,000 private landowners enrolled] is a good place for prospects for farmers looking to develop grazing service clientele."
Cihanek and Dunakin both offer livestock rental consulting and start-up services.
Cihanek evaluates sites and helps producers develop and implement grazing plans. Dunakin charges a one-time fee to become a Rent-A-Ruminant affiliate/licensee to receive mentoring, training, support and equipment bearing her brand name.
Agricultural entrepreneurs and those who engage them often build additional revenue by expanding the scope of the original business. Freshkills Park Administrator Eloise L. Hirsh may have hinted at such an opportunity when she suggested in a June 2012 New York Times article the possibility of artisanal goat cheese manufacturing in the park's well-grazed future.
The author is a freelance writer who keeps horses and sheep on a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.