Tammy Dunakin sits in a lawn chair in the shade of her R-pod camper trailer watching her brush-removal team at work. Her crew of 60 is spaced haphazardly across a weedy hillside that rises to meet Highway 99 in downtown Seattle.
At least half of the workers are napping or resting in the shade. The others are wandering about or snacking. It’s typical for this crew. They’re goats.
People walking by are surprised and delighted. They ask questions and snap photos through the fence. They stop. They look. They linger.
“Seriously? This is pretty awesome,” one man says to Dunakin before continuing on his way.
“Goats out of context,” says Dunakin, the owner of Rent-a-Ruminant, which is based on nearby Vashon Island. “It grabs people’s attention. People absolutely love goats. Everyone—and I mean every single person who sees them—leaves with a smile on their face. It makes them happy. It makes my day.”
When Dunakin started her clients were private landowners. Eleven years later, goats are in high demand and getting more popular all the time. Now she also has requests from planned communities, transportation departments and even police departments for clearing shrubbery in high-crime areas.
In March, Amazon Home Services launched with goats as a top offering. “My email exploded,” says Dunakin. “I got hundreds of requests. No one was expecting that kind of response.”
This is Uber, but with goats, and more proof that thanks to technology meeting ingenuity meeting demand, there will soon be an “Uber” for everything.
Dunakin’s herd has grown to 115 working goats, and she now has more than enough work to keep them all busy from April to October. Livestock-loving entrepreneurs are stepping up to fill the growing demand. Dunakin has trained and licensed 10 others through her affiliate license program, and she plans to franchise in 2016. More than 50 grazing providers across the United States and Canada can be found here.
Goats are browsers as opposed to grazers. Unlike cows, which mostly stick to munching grass, goats prefer a variety of plants. They’ll eat thorny Himalayan blackberries, stinging nettles, ivy – it’s a long list. Goats are the high school boys of the animal kingdom.
They like to climb. They traverse steep slopes with ease. Their digestion destroys some weed seeds such as blackberry seeds, and they fertilize the soil as they go. They also help to keep fire danger low.
If they are deployed at the right time of year and contained—not always an easy task—using livestock such as goats is arguably one of the best, greenest ways to remove pesky weeds and unwanted vegetation. And best of all, you don’t have to own a goat to reap the benefits—you can rent.
It’s not a solution for everyone. I received an estimate through Amazon Home Services for a tenth-of-an-acre parcel. At $650 it seemed a bit steep for a mow. I get it, though. The goats have to be transported to the property, the wrangler stays with them the entire time, and she has to set up electric fencing to keep the goats out of the garden beds and any plants that are toxic to them.
I’ll stick with a push mower, but goats make a lot of sense for people with some combination of steep slopes, gnarly weeds, significant acreage, restoration goals or a desire to do good for the planet.
Mark Stranahan has all but the steep slopes. He hired Dunakin’s goats in June to come out to his land on Vashon Island for the second year in a row.
“What goats eat, it’s incredible. I had a huge nasty thicket of blackberry bramble with branches an inch thick, and they ate it all. It’s amazing what they can accomplish in terms of clearing,” says Stranahan, who is an architect and consultant who has been living in Ann Arbor, Mich., for part of the year.
Last year the goats worked his four acres of meadows and alder forests for nine days, and this year they cleared the weeds in a week. How did they shave three days off? More experience? Better pay? Cloud-based solutions? Actually, the land starts to recover, and it becomes easier to maintain.
“It’s nice to wander out with a hot cup of coffee and see the goats,” Stranahan says.
Not so entertaining is when the goats get out. Set free, they will eat gardens and ornamental plants (and get sick goat bellies or worse), and they will clamber up onto anything they can, including the roof of your car or home. This is why hiring is the best way to go.
“I lived with a couple of goats in a previous era on a previous hippie farm,” Stranahan said. “They are damned difficult roommates. The clickety-clack of little goat hooves on your Alfa Romeo will piss you right off.”
Stranahan likes a good goat-based solution because, well, it’s cool.
“Local vegan food is cool, roller-derby is cool, and goats are cool,” he said.
Having them quickly graze off weed populations every few seasons is an excellent way to encourage re-vegetation and restoration of natural plant succession. And it’s more fun. People don’t come visiting with a picnic if you’re spraying pesticides.
Russ Ayers might agree. He’s the landscape manager of the 2,200-acre Issaquah Highlands, a master-planned community in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range. He has hired goats to come eat weeds on about 18 acres of the steepest, toughest terrain—land where the community tried using human crews before discovering it was just too rough and risky. Goats have been coming for five years. They are born to take on steep hillsides where weed-eaters wear out and where men grow weary and get injured.
“They do a great job,” Ayers says.
When they’re done, the fire fuel load is virtually zero. They chomp it down and fertilize the fields and by early fall the grass is green and about six inches tall. The goats cost a quarter of what a human crew costs.
To accomplish the same tasks, a human crew would need to cut, bag, haul, dump and fertilize—each step with a cost and carbon footprint that the goats obliterate in the game of who’s greener.
If you’re in the market for a goat rental, Dunakin has a few tips. Find an outfit that stays with the goats, unless you want to end up on the news. If the animals escape, a speedy response is essential. Check the company’s rating with the Better Business Bureau as well as reviews from previous clients and on sites such as Angie’s List. Make sure they are insured and that they provide water and shelter for the animals.
If restoration of native vegetation is your goal, An Peischel, a small ruminant extension specialist at Tennessee State University, suggests making sure the herd you hire has experience with your particular types of vegetation. There is a lot of science around what goats can do, naturally, and factors such as time of year, elevation and even sex of the goats can make a difference in what the goats will eat when. With the right timing, goats can eradicate certain weeds and promote native plants.
Dunakin’s adorable employees have perennial appeal. She and her goats have been highlighted in The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and “The Colbert Report,” among other places, but Dunakin says she has at least one more goal. “I know that when I get on ‘Ellen,’ I have arrived.” Sigh. We hope Playboy will do for now.
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