By Deb Dramby, Willowsford Farm
As many homeowners and property managers seek sustainable alternatives to land management, goats are increasingly sought out as an alternative to chemical and mechanical weed control.
Last summer, in its fifth year of business, the Maryland-based company Eco-Goats made the front page of The Washington Post when its herd cleared invasive and unwanted plants from Congressional Cemetery in historic southwest Washington, near the Anacostia River. While managed grazing has been used for brush control and land-clearing for centuries, the practice has recently resurfaced throughout North America.
At Willowsford Farm, Conservancy, and Community, and around Loudoun County, our own small herd of goats is following suit and managing unwanted vegetation naturally—by eating it. We deliver goats to a target area, ranging from a quarter-acre to an acre, enclose them in a solar-powered electric fence, and provide them with water, shelter and supplementary feed or minerals. For several days or weeks, depending on the size of the area and density of vegetation, the goats chew their way through the brush, leaving the area cleared for replanting with more desirable plants.
For most of 2013, we kept our young goats close to the farm, allowing them to graze mostly within or around our fence-line. They become accustomed to frequent moves and grew horns big enough to defend themselves against potential predators on future job sites. Blissful visitor interactions with the animals led to important conversations about conservation, with children especially, and attracted interest and volunteers to the farm. That summer, we took several goats to the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture to participate in their farm-based summer camp. This day trip and one small prescribed graze in Fairfax helped launch the grazing and educational outreach business we run today.
The demand for the goats’ defoliation service was so high in 2014 that the herd spent most of the season working off-site more than on. If you hiked the new trails at Morven Park in Leesburg, you may have passed our herd, chowing down on Mile-A-Minute. Or if you jogged the trail, you may have had ten running-mates along the fence for fifty yards!
In addition to consecutive grazing gigs since 2014, the goats returned to summer camp at Arcadia and participated in several weeks of Farm Kamp while at Morven Park. In collaboration with DC Greens and its Growing Green Teacher Programming, the goats brought livestock education to the District, visiting with hundreds of students at Janney Elementary School and St. Colomba’s Nursery School. In 2015, the goats teamed up with yet another farm-to-school initiative, teaching elementary-aged children about animals in the farm system through Real Food For Kids: Loudoun County.
Whether during an educational visit or in conversations with passersby on prescribed grazes, the goats are always teaching. When we’re on site watering and caring for the herd, discussions center around how it all works—how a goat’s narrow, triangular mouth allows them to crush what they eat, so seeds that might otherwise get passed through are not viable—and often drift into topics like ticks, “to spray or not to spray,” where cashmere comes from and the appeals of goat’s milk. When there is no shepherd on site, perhaps the herd spurs childhood memories of family farms, or gives folks a chance to meet an animal that wouldn’t typically cross their paths.
In the coming years, as our goats work to keep local woods walkable, we hope their charm and successes continue to facilitate discussions about preserving ecosystems and sustainable land management.
[Deb Dramby is the market manager, education coordinator and shepherd at Willowsford Farm, more than 300 acres that are part of the 2,000 Willowford Conservancy. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. To learn more about the organization or to participate in the rural road initiative, to go loudouncoalition.org.]