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Goats Gone Wildways: Part 3

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

Photo courtesy of Colin Hodge

Instagram: colin_hodge

Hey folks, I know it's been a while. The goats are long gone (but hopefully alive… they do live at a meat farm, after all). We returned them to Pine Island Community Farm at the end of August. I still visit and volunteer at the farm whenever I can. The only goat I have been able to identify is Gordon, but she looks at me with blank eyes as if she forgets everything we've been through together. The more curious goats push around her and stand on their hind legs to greet me face-to-face, but she just munches on hay with the others while I reminisce. Gordon was by far the best grazer of the three goats. Ramsey and Guy were more focused on bullying her than doing their job. Maybe it was because of her small size, or maybe Ramsey and Guy were feeling aggressive because they were hungry and the invasives were just not doing it for them.

It's difficult to gauge how well our experiment went based on the limited time we had with the goats. Most of the information I knew about goats prior to this project was from volunteering at a goat farm. Planning this project involved a lot of fast research and consulting with experts, but I wish I had more time to get some hands on experience at more livestock farms. We did the best we could with the information that we had, but one thing I think we may have lost sight of is that a goat is not just a machine for clearing invasives. Had they stayed throughout the rest of the growing season, the goats might have done really well and made a significant impact on invasives. On the other hand, they could have gotten seriously ill or even died if we did not do more research on shelter, social structure, and nutrition. Although goats will eat anything, it doesn't mean they should eat anything. Many plants are concentrated with specific minerals and compounds but lack other essential nutrients. As a result, a goat eating only goutweed is the equivalent of me eating bananas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I'm getting plenty of potassium, but eventually I'm going to get very sick and die from malnutrition. The goats got grain every other day which is probably what was keeping them alive. We fed them the amount the farmer said to, but after speaking to another goat farmer we learned that his instructions were probably either incorrect or misinterpreted. The farmers at Pine Island are very experienced but I think that there is cultural difference between livestock operations in the US vs Bhutan, where the farmers are from. Chuda and Gita have a successful business and most of their goats seem happy, but my gauge of their happiness exists purely through my knowledge-lacking, anthropogenic lens.

The Intervale Center is interested in purchasing goats for the purpose of controlling invasive plants which is what incentivized this project. The question we're trying to answer is is the Intervale or McKenzie Park ready to have a long-term goat operation? If not, what needs to happen to make them ready? The answer is that they're not ready (more like I'm not ready), at least not yet. Even if all the money and resources are there, the most important thing is that there is a goat expert involved. I thought I could be the goat expert, but it turns out that I have a lot of work to do. To humanely and correctly use goats as invasive plant grazers, you need to have extensive knowledge of grazing and goat husbandry. Working at Pine Island for three hours a week (where I barely get to converse with the actual farmers) is not enough. I need to read some books about grazing and visit a variety of goat farms where I can offer free labor in exchange for asking a million questions.

This project was very difficult because it required combining two completely different areas of knowledge: goat farming and invasive species management. Animal science and agricultural science programs are in the same college at my university, while wildlife biology (what I study) and natural resources programs are in another college. Therefore, there is little to no overlap between what I study and what an animal farmer studies. A successful invasive species removal program that utilizes livestock requires people who understand both ecology and livestock management. I think I can be one of those people in the future and this project has helped me get a little closer to that goal. It's up to me to learn a lot more before I try something like this again.

Although this post doesn't dive into a lot of information about invasive species control, this story gives you an example of how complicated nature is. Even when you think you've studied enough to plan a good conservation project, there are always going to be unexpected variables that sneak up on you. Sometimes it's important that you keep trying when things fail, but it's also important to know when to stop and reassess.

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