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These goats make short work of problem fauna

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Ben Robel's goats feast on a box elder tree on land he pastures near Muscoda. Robel's business, Vegetation Solutions, rents sheep and goats to landowners who want to get rid of invasive species without using herbicides. (AP Photos/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mark Hoffman)

MUSCODA, Wis. (AP) — Ben Robel is in the digestion rental business.

When his goats eat, he makes money.

Robel, owner of Vegetation Solutions, is part of a small but growing industry renting goats to clear fields and invasive plant species. The animals are perfect for the work — they eat just about anything, they scramble into spots difficult for humans and machinery to access, they don’t collect overtime and they don’t call in sick.

He started with two goats five years ago, and now his business has grown to 150 highly sought-after goats, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. He also rents out 14 Katahdin sheep and 25 lambs.

Customers include private landowners, as well as a utility company that wants to keep brush clear from its power poles, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I didn’t really want to work a 9-to-5 job. So now I’m working 24/7,” he joked as he opened an electric fence on his rental property near Muscoda.

As he walked through a paddock overgrown with brush and small trees, a herd of 40 mother goats — called dams — and 80 kids warily followed after Robel.

“So these are the employees,” said Robel, a Richland Center native and 2007 University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point wildlife biology grad.

Most of Robel’s workers are Kiko goats, a New Zealand based breed of meat goats, which he likes for their hardiness.

All through the dense undergrowth, stalks of cow parsnip stuck up half a foot from the ground, the tops gnawed off. When Robel yelled “Goats!” they came running as he pulled down box elder branches. Bleating in assorted pitches, they crowded around the branches and began snacking hungrily at the green leaves, adults and kids alike standing up on cloven hooves to reach their meal. An adult can reach as high as 6 feet.

Goats typically eat 5 percent of their body weight daily. And they don’t care what they eat — downing with gusto invasive species in Wisconsin including garlic mustard, wild parsnip and Queen Anne’s lace.

Customers are hiring “green” lawn mowers because it’s kinder to the environment than using pesticides and other chemicals, plus grazing goats can sometimes offer a property tax break for agricultural use.

Donna Justin and her husband hired Robel four years ago to help clear invasive species such as buckthorn, sumac, box elder and multiflora rose from their business, Justin Trails Resort in Sparta. Robel and his goats have returned each year and will be back later this month and June. The property is certified organic, so the Justins did not consider using chemicals to clear their property and didn’t want to send out people armed with loud gas-spewing weed whackers.

The first year, 23 goats were on site for a week, clearing 5 acres, before returning later in the summer for another grazing assignment.

“They did a great job,” said Donna Justin. “They’re more interested in those invasive species than the grass. They’re very quiet; they’re just busy eating.”

One of Ben Robel's Kiko goats girdles a tree May 16 on land he pastures near Muscoda.

Robel isn’t the only Wisconsin business renting out goats to manage vegetation. Jesse Bennett, founder of Driftless Land Stewardship in Bagley in southwestern Wisconsin, and Kim Hunter, who founded The Green Goats in 2008, also hire out goats for big and small jobs.

Bennett started in 2006 with 13 Boer and Spanish goats and now has more than 300 grazers for hire, while Hunter, who is based in Monroe and Twin Lakes, began with half a dozen and is now up to 130. Bennett handles mostly large-acreage jobs in southwestern Wisconsin, eastern Iowa and a few counties in Minnesota and Illinois, while Hunter’s customers are primarily private landowners.

It’s true the goats do most of the work, but actually it’s not as simple as trucking animals to a spot and opening the trailer door. Robel, Bennett and Hunter first have to build fences, move the goats to the location, make sure they have access to water and ensure they don’t escape. Prices vary widely depending on acreage, the type and amount of plants to be cleared and the length of time the goats will need to chew their way through.

For example, Bennett’s fee includes the cost of goat transportation, clearing a fence line and building the fence, and a daily rate for checking on the animals and their progress. But then it’s up to the goats.

“There is so much work for goats in Wisconsin. Most public land is infested with invasives. People don’t recognize it and think that’s the way it should be,” said Hunter.

Robel’s goats were part of a research project last year by UW-Madison and the Department of Natural Resources at Yellowstone Lake State Wildlife Area near Blanchardville. The land had once been oak savanna, and to return it to its natural state, the tree canopy was reopened several years ago. The additional sunlight created dense shrub growth.

Enter Robel’s ravenous ruminants.

The goats happily munched in different sections of the park for two- and four-day rotations so researchers could determine the changes to the shrubs and plants, said John Harrington, chairman of the UW-Madison department of landscape architecture.

Steep terrain at Yellowstone Lake makes it difficult to run equipment to thin the undergrowth, so goats are perfect. They’re also better grazers than cattle and since they’re smaller, they’re easier on the landscape and easier to manage, said Bruce Folley, a DNR wildlife biologist based in Darlington.

“Cattle eat grass; they don’t browse like the goats. The goats tend to leave the grass alone, which is what we want, and eat the brush,” said Folley.

There’s another benefit to hiring grazing goats — they’re so darn cute. Robel’s customers tell him they often enjoy the view as their land is slowly cleared, one mouthful at a time.

“Just about every client gets out lawn chairs and a bottle of wine to sit and watch the goats,” said Robel.

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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