Goatscaping, or the art of using goats to maintain property, has been around since Adam was knee high to a June bug. Goats are tough, notorious for eating pretty much anything and are relatively easy to manage.
Today goats are even showing up as humorous yoga class companions. Throughout the world they are put to work maintaining rural areas and are increasingly found in urban settings, munching away in hard to access locations.
Here in the southwest goats have historically been used to clean and maintain canals and drains. Local farmers still relate stories of goat herds assisting with the annual acequia cleaning. Elephant Butte Irrigation District is testing this newly revitalized method of using old technology on the hoof to deal with the constant growth of unwanted trees and weeds in their water delivery and drain system.
This summer the district contracted with Jake Perrault and his Green Machine Goatscaping herd, for a few dozen four legged temporary employees. They began work in late July on the Park Drain pilot project near the western edge of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. The drain is surrounded by community roads and businesses.
“Maintaining our drains is an ongoing issue,” said EBID’s District Engineer Zack Libbin. “It’s very challenging to keep all 600 miles of canals, laterals and drains maintained especially in this area right here near NMSU. We’re trying a different option that we hope will last longer.”
The busy location sets this drain up as a perfect candidate for alternative maintenance.
“We’re trying to find more environmentally friendly, green ways to keep these drains and canals maintained,” Libbin said. “Maybe going back to the old method will be a good solution.”
He hopes that utilizing goats will reduce equipment and employee costs while improving areas like this. Using the drain as a temporary goat bed and breakfast will help encourage grass to grow. He said their hooves working the ground can also help improve soil health and reduce erosion, creating a sustainable management environment.
“They are 24/7 eating machines,” Perrault said.
He began the Park Drain project with about 70 goats and installed appropriate fence to keep the animals contained and safe. Daily monitoring ensures they have fresh water and helps to determine when it’s time to remove a few animals or begin supplementing their feed as the vegetation is consumed.
Goatscaping advocates say the benefits of using goats as a landscaping maintenance tool include their ability to thoroughly digest non-beneficial weeds, trees and seeds, destroying their ability to germinate. Goats will eat entire younger trees, grinding up seeds, leaves and bark, then digging up the roots. They’ll even stand on the trees and knock them down so they can reach the remaining green canopy.
With a lifespan of 15-18 years and a gestation period of only 150 days, these compact animals are an efficient four-footed resource. Perrault runs a few mixed breed sheep in with the goats and chooses animals that are hardy, not “whiny.”
“Over the years this herd has been designed to withstand any problem that most sheep and goats can get,” Perrault said. “My family originated here in the 1800s in the Mimbres Valley. My great-grandfather George Oliver Perrault came here as a sergeant with the U.S. Cavalry and operated one of the biggest ranches in the area.”
Deciding when to begin a goatscaping session depends on the moisture and temperature conditions. Perraut recommends turning them into an area early when the plants are small and weaker. He said a regimen of three successive cleanings has the potential to transform an area and allow grass to establish with minimal weed and tree invasion.
Woody vegetation is a problem on dams and in drains. The roots can create natural tunnels that water can then follow and erode within the bank or face of a dam. Reduction of brush and trees also allows predators like hawks and coyotes easier access to their dinner, burrowing rodents which often cause tremendous damage to irrigation and flood control structures.
The animals are no strangers to rough ground and are not fazed by steep banks, concrete headwalls and overgrown trees. They treat these types of areas like their own personal playground and are in their perfect element. It’s like goat parkour.
Libbin and his team at EBID are analyzing the effects of these temporary goat employees. If the process works well both here and on the next phase “we’ll see where else we’d like to try and implement it where it’s most appropriate.”
It looks like the goats may be on a call-back status as environmentally safe vegetation managers and soil improvers if they work hard and clean their plates.