Rosa Multiflora, European Buckthorn, honeysuckle, Japanese Barberry — invasives, all. And goats find them delicious.
A herd of 18 goats was introduced at Pine Cobble School, in Williamstown, MA, as part of their newly instated Goats in the Woods Project (GIW). The project is devoted to introducing meat goats into wooded areas to eat invasives as a source of forest management called agroforestry. Another goal is to help teach kids where food originates.
Burning bush is another invasive. “It’s the first plant they went to,” said Morgan Hartman, a goatherd owner who has three children attending the school. Hartman owns a 575-acre Black Queen Angus Farm in nearby Berlin, NY and a herd of 55 completely grass-fed cattle. “They’ve almost run out of invasives to eat,” he said of the goats, who also like Japanese knotweed, a plant which tastes like rhubarb. His cattle like it too.
The goats are his answer to the school’s callout to clean up the woods. Close to Clark Art Museum and Williams College, “It’s a hit, I’ll tell you. It’s like a carousel, people driving in and out to visit the goats and the puppies,” Hartman said, referring to Leonardo and Francesa, the two eight-month-old guard dogs. The Maremma/Great Pyrenees crosses are big as the goats.
The goats are a learning tool for plant ecology, counting and food origination. “We’re getting away from the concept of Bambi and really understanding what Bambi is,” said Hartman.
Sheer size makes goats more readily accessible to children. “Cattle are big. For elementary school kids, cattle are daunting. Goats are so gregarious, social animals, makes it fun for children,” said Hartman.
Of mixed ages and breeds, they are primarily Kiko meat breed originally from New Zealand, bred up from a feral goat. These goats were selected for their ability to kid without assistance and their strong hooves, following the commercial least-cost production model Hartman employs at his farm.
It was while doing volunteer work at the Cooperative Extension that Hartman saw the need to “focus on the consumer end. People who are not farmers who really don’t know where their food comes from.” The kick-off of a four-pronged collaborative speaking series to answer that question began with people meeting the goats during a goat walk at Pine Cobble School in April, then eating two of the goats previously taken out and prepared as Northern and Saharan African cuisine. The meal was served by Chef Greg Roach of Williamstown’s Wild Oats Market, and a presentation was given by Dr. Peter Smallidge, New York Extension Forester and Director of the Cornell University Arnot Teaching and Research Forest.
Seventy adults attended the dinner, pleasing Robin Riley, Wild Oats marketing manager. Attending children ate pizza they made themselves at Wild Oats, sponsored by Williams College, involved through Williams’ Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program.
The concept of placing livestock inside forests is not new. Pigs once roamed freely in the Appalachians, fattening up. Following European traditions centuries old, specialty ham Serrano from Spain is finished on acorns. “Pigs in conjunction with sheep and goats create a savanna-like landscape that is most suitable for them if they’re managed properly,” said Hartman.
Smallidge started the GIW project in 1999 through 2003, working with 600 goats and eight to 10 on-farm cooperators to find an organic process to control undesirable plants in the forest, especially American beech and striped maple, and to provide options for goat producers of extra land to hold goats too young for spring sale. He had previously seen a stand of American beech levelled by spraying Round-up in Pennsylvania.
They found no goat damage to desired mature forest trees. Girdling trees by eating their bark, goats left larger trees with heavier bark alone. Goats needed to be at least a year old for their teeth to be big enough to be girdling efficient.
Researching if young goats would exhibit compensatory weight gain if put on pasture after summering in the woods on suboptimal forage, they found they gained weight.
They anticipated this information was needed by goat producers to start “rent a goat” businesses. It affirmed that landowners could make greater use of their woodlands, and alerted foresters of goats’ use as a broadcast tool. GIW employed some techniques of silvopasture, such as frequent movement among paddocks, though not truly rotational grazing. The eradication of undesirables lasts two to three years. Flaming and using skidders are other methods.
“I don’t think of invasive species as an isolated problem. It’s the matrix of our landscape,” said Smallidge. He utilizes silvopasture in controlling his own woodlot’s understory. Following a “judicious cutting of trees,” then scarification of pine/ oak leaf litter with the busy feet of his chickens, direct seeding is followed by lambs pushing the seeds into contact with mineral soil by walking on them.
However, it’s not quite as much fun as the children have watching the goats at Pine Cobble School.