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When “you should get goats” becomes “I’ve got goats”
Even though I make no promises about the regularity of this newsletter, I nevertheless feel some guilt when more than a week goes by between posts. It’s been a busy few weeks and I just haven’t had sufficient time or energy to write.
So as a means of apology, I figured I’d take a break from writing about woodworking and instead respond to reader demand for content on a different topic: goats.
Goats came into our lives earlier this summer, but our interest in goats isn’t new. Back in Arlington, we joked about bringing in goats to help eat poison ivy that was threaded throughout our front garden. In fact, some of our neighbors actually did act on that impulse and brought in a herd of goats to clear a weedy hill along a busy roadway.
Once we moved to Broad Run, though, our interest became less of a joke and more of a serious consideration. Over our 12 acres, I’d estimate half is wooded and filled with poison ivy and various invasive plants such as multiflora rose, oleander, tree of heaven and more. We wanted to clear all those unwanted plants, but doing so ourselves would take ages, not to mention the countless rashes I’d battle thanks to the poison ivy.
“You should get goats.” That’s what nearly everyone who visited us said. I’d roll my eyes — not because I thought the idea was a bad one, but I knew it wasn’t that simple. Goats aren’t just handy garden tools. They’re living beings that require care, food, medicine, and shelter. I’m already busy enough. Do I really want to add goats to my responsibilities?
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Then a friend gave me Goat Song by Brad Kessler. It’s a lovely memoir of a young couple’s experience raising goats in order to make homemade raw-milk goat cheese. Kessler’s book was a terrific education on the history of the human-goat relationship and what to expect if you tried to raise a herd of milking goats. From tales of goats developing bonds with their human caretakers to goats pissing in their own mouths as part of a mating ritual (wait, what??), the book simultaneously made me want to get goats of my own and never get goats of my own.
Maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all
My resistance to getting goats was mostly based on the not wanting to bear the cost or the responsibility. But then one day this summer as I was walking around the property, I was struck by just how staggeringly and aggressively various invasive species had penetrated the woods and were transforming the landscape. Maybe, I thought, goats would be less of a burden and more of a force multiplier. I’d work on one project while the goats made steady progress clearing the invasive plants. Yeah, maybe we should get goats!
I told my wife that I was willing to make the goat plunge and within two or three seconds, she started sending me websites full of goat information — almost as if she had them bookmarked for the day I relented. One site described different goat breeds. Another outlined what prospective goat herders needed to know. Other sites offered all manner of advice. We decided dwarf Nigerian goats would suit us well. I searched Craigslist and found at least three sellers in our area. I didn’t want the hassle of milking goats, nor the temperament of a fully intacty male goat, so we looked for sellers who had castrated male goats, known as wethers, available.
Soon we were in the pickup with a dog crate in the back on the way to pick up two three-month-old boys. We arrived at the goat farm and found seven or eight goats in a small pen. Each goat was about the size of a carry-on suitcase and the weight of a small child. We picked two to take home — a brown one we named Carl and a grey one we called Dorian — and put them in the dog crate.
“You have fencing for them?” the goat seller asked.
“Oh yeah,” I answered, thinking about all of the wire fencing I had pulled down and planned to re-use for these guys.
“Ok, just making sure you’re prepared,” she said as she waved good bye. In retrospect, I now image she then turned to her husband and said, “they’re screwed.”
Can’t fence me in
Of course, I was not prepared. Not in the least. Yes, I had some wire fencing. And yes, I set it up with some T-stakes. And yes, I thought that would work. And no, it did not.
I picked up Dorian and carried him from the truck to the hastily erected pen, setting him gently inside. He bleated and called out to Carl; goats do not like to be alone.
Then I walked back to the truck and picked up Carl. As I turned from the truck with Carl in my arms, Dorian trotted past me.
Hmm. I put Carl back in the dog crate and picked up Dorian who I carried back to the pen. I realized he had been able to squeeze through the space where the two ends of the fence met, so I set him inside the pen and tightened the opening. Then I went back to the truck and got Carl. Then I heard Dorian bleating at my feet.
Clearly my fence-mending skills were lacking. I put Carl back in the crate and placed Dorian in there as well. I sent my wife to the hardware store to get some spikes to help keep the fence grounded and some wire to tie it together more tightly. Once she returned, I re-secured it and used wire to tighten any gaps.
Then I placed Dorian in the pen, got Carl and felt a surge of joy when Dorian was still in his pen. I set Carl in the pen and stepped back to admire my work. Humans really are the superior species.
Then I watched the two goats push through the fence. Our species is doomed.
As the sun dipped below the trees, I chased after the goats and tried to entice them back to the dog crate. They had had enough of me and disappeared into the woods. I called for them until it was dark, but they were gone.
Coyotoes, bears, bobcats… do they like goat meat? I worried all night about their safety and slept poorly. Once the sun came up, I dashed outside and find the boys back in the yard, happily munching on our raspberry bushes.
By this point, the goats had zero interest in letting me get very close to them. No matter what treats I tried to lure them with — apples, carrots, leafy branches, goat treats from the farm store — they saw me as nothing more than a threat to their freedom. I’d spend an hour trying to lead them into the dog crate. They’d just look at me as if to say, “why are you bothering us?”
Once I finally managed to get one in the crate, the other loitered nearby. I couldn’t get him in, but I wasn’t worried; I knew he wouldn’t go far because, as I said, goats do not like to be alone.
I also realized the fencing I was using was not going to work. I needed something taller and more secure. I found just the thing at the hardware store — a series of black wire panels that could be linked together. It wasn’t cheap, but it seemed workable. And just as important, it also seemed mobile, meaning I could move it around the property, which we wanted to do in order to get the goats to clear the land little by little.
I set up the new fencing and eventually lured the goats into it. I gave them some leafy branches to munch on and after a few hours the goats were still there! Success!
From hero to goat
I still find it jarring to hear great athletes being referred to as “the goat,” as in “the greatest of all time.” To me, the “goat” is the player who choked or failed or is most responsible for a team’s loss.
That old definition is exactly how I felt when the actual goats — Carl and Dorian — turned my fencing success into yet another fencing failure.
After thinking I had succeeded with the panel fencing, I bought more of it with the expectation that I could make a large moveable pen for their long term use. We erected it around a dense patch on a hill that included thorny bushes and a tree of heaven. We placed the goats inside and let them enjoy the bountiful buffet that awaited.
And that’s when I witnessed the reality of a phrase I had read online: “a fence that can’t hold water won’t hold a goat.” Within minutes of placing the goats in the new pen, they demonstrated their innate parkour abilities by vaulting themselves off the hill into the four-foot fence, which they then climbed and liberated themselves.
Once again, I chased the goats around the yard, but they easily stayed one (or two) steps ahead of me. The only way I could recapture them was to patiently lure them with treats and then quickly grab them by the neck. I put them back into the open and doubled the height of the fence where they had escaped. It made no difference. Moments later, they were out.
To make recapturing easier, we fitted each goat with a collar. Then we moved the panel fence to a flat area. We then added two strands of electrified fencing to the pen, which proved successful at keeping the boys from trying to climb out. The problem with this approach, though, is that we had to cut branches and vines for them to eat — which had to be loaded into a wire cage, since the goats don’t like to eat off the ground — and this pen wasn’t very portable. I needed a better long-term solution.
A fence that works
I had come to realize that the only fence that had a chance of working would be an electrified one. Yet, I needed something that was portable so I could move it around the property. I found just the thing: an electrified mesh fence with built-in spiked poles.
Once I got over the sting of what seemed like never-ending fencing expenses, I was excited to take receipt of the new system when it arrived. It was pretty easy to set up, with one caveat. All of the horizontal lines on the fence are electrified, which is great for keeping the goats off the fence. But, it presents a challenge in setting up because any plants that are touching those lines ends up drawing power from the fence back to the ground. That reduces the power — and thus the efficacy — of the fence. Ironically, to address that, I have to cut a path through the woods where the fence will go. In other words, in order to clear an area I don’t want to go into, I have to first clear the area for the fence so the goats can be penned in so they can clear the area. Goat-22.
Furthermore, the fence is 164-feet long, so the “path” I need to clear needs to be a 164-foot “circle,” which isn’t so easy to figure out.
Using a combination of hedge clippers, loppers, hand pruners and a gas-powered string trimmer, I cut a path and erected the fence. I had to make a few adjustments to get the fence taught, but after a while I managed to make it work, Then I connected the solar-powered energizer to the fence and turned it on. The goats brushed up against the electrified mesh, yelped and jumped back. They would not dare to climb or push through any more.
After a few days, the goats cleared their penned-in area and it was time for us to move the fence. Over the past few months, we’ve moved them maybe 10 times. Each move has gotten faster and easier as we’ve gotten good at estimating the perfect path for the fence to encircle an area.
In addition to the fence, we build them a small three-sided shelter they can hide in when the weather turns wet and nasty or when they need to escape an oppressive sun.
We’ve also learned that the solar energizer really does need to get sufficient sun to keep the fence hot. At one point, the energizer had weakened to the point that the goats no longer feared the shock. Indeed, Carl twice got entangled in the mesh, seemingly unbothered by the weak electric pulses that merely tickled his beard.
Not wanting to be outdone, Dorian got himself entangled in the wire feeder when we had him in the temporary pen. Maybe it’s not so much that goats want to escape as much as they just always want to be on the other side of any fencing. Go figure.
But most of the time, the fence worked well, and so did the goats. They eat nearly everything other than grass. They seem completely unconcerned with thorns, stripping foliage off prickly vines. Though they don’t eat wood, they strip the foliage off every branch, vine, and stalk they can reach.
Thanks to the goats, we’ve cleared substantial areas, though human clean-up is still needed to finish the job. But I’m glad not to be wading into prickle bushes and patches of poison ivy.
I don’t think the goats will ever be “done” with our property. There’s simply too much vegetation for the two of them to much on. And in fact, we can already see areas they’ve “cleared” could benefit from a return visit as leaves begin to regenerate. But, they sure are making it easier for us to realize our landscaping ideas.
Easier, that is, so long as they stay fenced in.