A new kind of weed wacker is making the rounds in backyards and the country, in city parks and nature trails. Rather than running on gasoline or electricity, it is self-powered by the weeds it eats. They are available for rent but not purchase and are rewarded by saltine crackers and mini-marshmallows. With names like Rasta, Noel, Pebbles, and Ginger, they currently range in age from 9 months to 8 years and in size from 50 to 90 pounds.
Jacob Porter is the owner of Green Goat Land Management, LLC, based in Neeses, South Carolina, employing a herd of 100 goats of various origins and breeds. The goats work on job sites from small overgrown backyards requiring a week or so, depending on the yard’s condition and the number of goats used and costing an estimated $200 to $400, to large kudzu-covered acreage requiring 20 goats over extended periods of close to a year. Regardless, the job starts with a phone call to Jacob.
Jacob’s process consists of meeting with the landowner on his or her property, providing an estimate, choosing six or seven goats to work from his herd of 100, setting up an electric fence to keep predators out and a white picket fence to direct the goats where to work, and letting them do their thing. This past year Steven Langer, retired, and his wife, Sally, working as a speech pathologist at the time, hired the goats to help clear their backyard in a Rockbridge neighborhood.
The Langers had bought a beautiful home in the Rockbridge area that had belonged to nature enthusiasts, who had lovingly planted extensively to attract birds and butterflies. As that couple grew older, however, the garden maintenance became too much and they eventually sold their nature haven. Meanwhile trees grew taller, plantings spread, and the house itself began disappearing from view. After observing the work of Jacob’s goats at a neighbor’s home, Steven and Sally decided they needed the goats to help reclaim their backyard.
They say their favorite interaction with the goats was giving them treats of marshmallows and saltines around dusk after arriving home from work. After feeding the goats, they went in the house for dinner and the goats went back to work.
When the goats are working for a homeowner, they can be rewarded with treats of mini-marshmallows and saltine crackers as prescribed by Jacob without danger of their filling up. Goats, with four stomachs, are never full. Back home on the farm, they munch from continuous feed horse quality hay bins around the clock. Sally observed they ate 22 of 24 hours a day. The slender goats move around with big bellies swinging as they graze.
Do the goats work for Jacob or is it the other way around? He arranges their jobs, selects the individual goats to participate, and delivers them to and from the job sites. He checks out what is growing, using a phone app to identify hidden or unknown plants that may be toxic. Before a job starts, Jacob sets up white fencing to corral the goats into the area where they are supposed to work and away from where they should not. They are trained to follow the fencing’s designations. He sets up electrified fencing to protect the goats from predators, like dogs or coyotes. Certain goats are also natural protectors of the herd, and he includes at least one at each job site.
The larger goats can reach higher when they stand up and brace themselves against tree trunks to eat the leaves on ivy or kudzu vines. Goats, which are believed to have been the first domesticated animals, will even climb trees. The larger goats can also digest toxic plants better than the smaller ones. When young, the goats are fed small amounts of toxic plants that make them slightly ill. Thus, they learn to be careful with toxic plants. According to the Cornell University Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in the case of goats, “‘poisonous’ does not mean deadly. The dose determines if a plant is a safe source of nutrients or a toxic hazard.”
However, some plants like azalea are deadly to goats and must be fenced off, Jacob says. On the other hand, goats have natural ways of managing diets of toxic plants while on the job. When Mona Dzindzeleta, a solutions manager for Truck Supply Company of South Carolina, first observed Jacob’s goats clearing overgrown areas of her huge backyard, she noticed they ran from one area to the next without fully clearing the first area like a human with a power tool might do.
In fact, the goats were more than likely balancing the toxic plants with others that were not toxic to avoid getting sick. The larger the goat, the more toxicity that goat can handle. Offsetting the toxicity is the baking soda that Jacob gives his customers to keep in the goats’ plentiful water supply. The alkaline baking soda offsets the acidity of the plants being eaten. Maybe the saltines and mini-marshmallows help, or maybe not, but they definitely do not hurt the goats and they provide fun and entertainment to the customers, family members, and neighbors who stop by. Some customers have learned to time the goats’ jobs in their yards with children’s birthday parties.
Unlike some goats, Jacob’s herd will not charge with head down and horns up. They will eat treats without biting or fighting with one another or the person providing the treat. Many, but not all, love hugs and petting. They are trained in a positive manner. When they exhibit an undesired behavior as a youngster, they are sprayed with water from a spray bottle, and goats — like cats — hate water. When exhibiting positive behavior, they are rewarded with treats. Positive wins out, and they continue to receive treats as negative behaviors are long forgotten and seldom recur. With all the treating and petting, customers may become so attached to the goats working on their properties that they may want them to stay.
You can’t keep them though. They belong to Jacob, and Jacob has a special permit to use them for jobs in Columbia. Homeowners can keep chickens in the city but not goats. In spite of the velvety soft noses that are waiting to be stroked and those plaintive eyes, the goats have to go back to their farm in Neeses, but you can always arrange for some maintenance work next season. That is what Mona is planning. With the overgrown edges of her yard cleared, the big grassy area will be perfect for the rescue dogs she takes care of or the next dog she owns.
No, the goats do not dig below ground to dig up weed roots, but when they eat the leaves, they eat the seeds. Their weed removal does not spread seeds, contrary to what normally happens when a person is painstakingly digging the weeds up by hand.
“Anything ruminated can’t be germinated,” says Jacob of the seeds the goats eat and eventually pass. “Anything fermented won’t germinate.” Part of their digestive process includes regurgitating partly digested food and chewing it again, or ruminating, like cows. Given all the digesting the goats do, homeowners do not have to worry about goat poop around the yard. The goats drop tiny pellets that dry out and blow away. That’s the reason for the popularity of goats in “goat yoga.” Can you imagine otherwise?
When they see an open sleeve of saltines in Mona’s hand, the goats gather around with mouths ready to open and receive a cracker until each has had one. Then they go back to work. Because the goats were having difficulty accessing one area needing to be cleared in Mona’s yard, Jacob dropped off another goat named Ginger toward the end of the job at this late April project in North Columbia. When Ginger stands to eat vines from a tree, she easily clears 7 feet. She came directly from another job, and her impact is visible immediately. After getting right to work munching what the others have left or could not reach, she stands patiently beside Mona waiting to have her nose and head stroked even if a cracker is not visible.
At the other end of the size spectrum but no less loving is M&M, who had to be bottle fed as a baby. This happens when a mother is ill or otherwise not able to nurse. When Mona opens the back door to step out in the yard with the goats, M&M is pressing to come inside. Mona thinks perhaps the affectionate little goat developed this desire from being bottle fed and allowed inside, but she resists the urge to comply. “No,” says Jacob. “No goat belongs in the house,” although M&M may have been brought in for bottle feedings, he admits, which can require purchasing goat’s milk to feed them.
Jacob and his wife, Cassie Rice, arrived home recently to discover three goats had given birth and were all hollering. Turns out one mother goat had gathered all the babies and was wanting to feed them with her two teats, but the other mothers wanted their own goats back. “We had a time figuring out which babies went with which mothers,” he says.
In between visiting potential job sites to provide quotes and setting up the goats at work locations, he and Cassie have their hands full on the farm taking care of the herd. They help birth baby goats when needed, tend to ailing new mothers or otherwise ill goats, and bottle feed the babies every 2 to 3 hours as required. In addition to all the other chores that come with tending a herd and owning a farm, they both love the business, which is how they met.
A disabled veteran with 20 years of service in the U.S. military, Jacob was figuring out his place in the civilian world when he bought some goats from Cassie. He used the goats to clear three acres of property he owned near Eastover. The cleared land sold for a much higher price than the original cost. After that experience, he decided a land management company based on goat labor would work well, and he loved the aspect of using willing animal labor instead of chemicals and energy-dependent power tools. He and Cassie combined forces at her goat farm near Neeses, and Green Goat Land Management was born in September 2019.
“Belmont Turns Tough Job Over to Goats,” read a recent headline in Belmont, North Carolina. The goats of Green Goat Land Management have received extensive publicity on television, in print, and in social media. In fact, the goats were getting as many “hits” on social media as the war in Ukraine, a Charlotte television reporter told Jacob, who is pleased when the goats provide good news to offset all the disturbing and tragic events in the news.
The city of Belmont has a 9-month contract with Jacob to provide 20 goats to clear 55 acres. They clear four acres every two to three weeks. Jacob drives to Belmont regularly to keep an eye on the goats. He checks for any scrapes or scratches, illness, or other problems and determines whether they should return to the farm to be treated or can remain working. He has learned about treatments from older generation farmers.
This is not their first long gig. In addition to previous Belmont jobs, such as clearing the path for a nature trail, a major job was completed in the spring on Paris Mountain above Greenville, South Carolina. A buyer purchased a 50-acre tract on top of the mountain and needed it cleared of underbrush and kudzu to build a house. Standing on the side of a mountain is no problem for a goat; they have two toes on each foot that can be moved independently to establish balance. Their weight shifts automatically to the lower side on sloped ground by articulating the toes and bending the knees and ankles. After all, goats originally came from the mountains. He has bids out for a number of large projects in South Carolina.
But Jacob also loves the practice of “neighbor helping neighbor, the way it is supposed to be” that he experiences in this area of rural Orangeburg County. The goats’ calendar is typically booked a month ahead, and some customers schedule ahead for particular months. They are not available December and January when they are at the highest risk of contracting pneumonia. When on the job site, the goats have access to a tarp Jacob sets up for rainy weather, but it cannot afford much protection from the cold. The large goat working at Steven and Sally Langer’s home in the Rockbridge area jumped on top of the tarp the first night and knocked half down. When rain came, the goats did not seem to mind huddling together under half the tarp, the Langers say, but they were a funny sight.
These homeowners in Columbia have faced the challenge of reclaiming overgrown areas not with the typical chain saws, electric or gasoline powered hedge trimmers, and other noisy, energy consuming tools but with environmentally safe, renewable, and sustainable laborers of a different sort. These weed and underbrush consumers live to eat, and they love to work! In addition, they happen to be very cute, clean, and super soft. What more could you want in a yard tool? You might even say it is the GOAT!