Reforesting With Goats


Photos: Ingrid Pullen

At Zaytuna Farm we have been using our Boer meat goats to fast-track the weed-tree-infested forested valleys’ succession and reforestation with a diversity of high quality tree species. This is being done around the pasture edges of the valleys and the gullies between our pastures, which are dominated by weed tree inundations of small and large leaf privet, camphor laurel and lantana.

We realise that if we let the weed species go through their successional sequences that they would over time give way to large native forest canopy species — the latter eventually pushing through and shading out the weed trees, and taking control of the canopy. This natural process takes time — in fact, about 90 years to complete canopy dominance back into native tree species — and in the interim it is very difficult to work amongst these weed species to physically cut and clear tree planting sites, using them for mulch and spot planting high quality forest trees of choice, along with the ongoing maintenance of holding back the dominance of weed species to advantage our plantings. We have done it and we have had some results and know how much hard work it takes to achieve.

I have always spent a lot of time thinking about the earth care ethic, and that intrinsic to earth care is the life ethic that all living things have an intrinsic worth. As goes the words of advice that I received from my long time friend and mentor, the great herbalist Isabel Shipard, "if you look out at the environment and hate anything it will haunt you forever". Goats are often hated for their destruction of trees and their effects on landscapes, especially drylands, towards extending desertification, so I was curious as to how I could design goats into a system so they had the opposite effect — of being a major help in reforestation instead.

We have kept both milking goats and meat goats for many years and we know they are definitely ideally suited to 60% mixed pasture herbage and 40% tree forage. They are happiest and healthiest if they have a good mixture, and they will eat many plants and tree leaves that are considered toxic without any health problems. They will stand as high as they can on their back legs and stretch their necks and extend their tongues to reach every last leaf they can, so as to digest a great variation of foliage. So it is true that goats will eat a great diversity of elements that most other domestic animals will not eat, but their preference is a balance of elements starting with the most dominant and prolific leaves within their fenced area.

So we converted a car trailer into a mobile goat house and invested in four lengths of electric net fencing — 50m long each — connected to a solar-powered electric fence unit, so that we can encircle an area 2,500 m2 in size, and proceeded to fence our goat flock into areas with 60% pasture and 40% weed-tree-infested forest edge. The goats then get to work and within a few days the sight line through the lower forest edge starts to clear and a few days later they start to stand on their back legs to reach up and eat the weed tree leaves. At this stage, before they run out of reachable leaves and begin eating the bark of the quality trees in their enclosed area, we start to cut some of the weed trees down for them to get extra forage, starting with the easiest and smallest trees first.

The goats quickly learn that each morning from this point onwards we are going to arrive to cut food down for them. As we do this we start to accumulate large amounts of small twig mulch on the forest floor, and large amounts of piled up larger branches and trunks which we allow to dry before using as firewood in our wood ovens, rocket stoves and biochar production. When we run out of weed trees to cut we move the goats on to the next section to start all over, and the first stage of the cycle is complete. We also do a final cut of all the stumps, close to the ground, with an abusive cut to stress the weed trees’ root systems, to discourage their re-sprouting as a coppice. Despite this, many will re-sprout, and within a few months they are at a height of around 2m, which is a good foraging height for the goats. So we then bring the goats back for a second cycle, which is quicker than the first, with no requirement for us to cut manually, except once the goats have eaten everything that has re-sprouted, and we have moved them on again, we abusively trim the weed tree stumps down again.

This cycle is repeated three or four times, at which stage the weed tree stumps start to get so weak and stressed they start to die. At this point we can stop the goat cycles and intensively plant in the forest trees we desire to take over, while continuing to slash the ever diminishing coppice re-sprouting — using it for mulch on our high quality emerging forest.

The goats do their job well, converting the weed trees into manure and goat meat, and, with some help from us, firewood. And those nutrient cycles, along with the weed tree stump abuse, speed up the successional cycles towards the high quality forest trees of our selection and choice.

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18 thoughts on “Reforesting With Goats

    1. No not oleander I do not know anything that can eat oleander, you have to remove all plants that will kill them first like oleander, it is not a wild weed where I live but has a real big poison reputation. Where we live we need to cut out poison peach which is a native and introduced weeds like brazilian passion fruit or green cestrum which are deadly to goats. You need to check out lists from your area and cut out the ones that are DEADLY more mildly toxic plants to goats they will not eat if they have plenty of forage and they will I have notice eat a little bit but balance them up with mixtures of bulk good forage as long as they have plenty of forage, I have noticed the same with our small herd of beef cows. Check the web for sites like this there many with good advice https://www.goatworld.com/health/plants/

  1. please explain “abusive” stump treatment. we have many yrs of vegetation mgmt experience & have found that many weed shrub. & tree species can be set way bsck (then more susceptible to further control practices) by “shattering ” the stump/root crown. have promoted your type of goat grazing/ browsing concept for many years to many vegetation mngrs.

    1. We abuse the stump by splitting it a bit with an axe or hack into it with a machete or even cut into it vertically with the chainsaw tip to encourage rot.

  2. Thanks, Geoff. Can you describe an “abusive cut”? Is it performed with a chainsaw, axe, other? Is it simply a perpendicular cut into the centre of the ground-level stump?

  3. I really like that the roots are left in place while this process happens. It sounds like a good way to speed up your reforestation process. We have a couple of milking goats, and I would like to figure out a way to use them more as we permaculture our property.The electric fence and movable shelter is a great idea! I have read that lantana is poisonous to goats. Have you found this at all?

  4. How many goats do you (and could you use) in an area of 2500msq in the sub-tropical area of Zaytuna? And, would it be possible to include other animals into the system. For example rabbits or chickens could feed on the pasture in the same area. If humans are already there to move and care for the goats, the extra time needed for the smaller animals would be small in comparision to the output? Or what about following through with pigs? Once the goats do the work on the top of the weedy trees, and the humans hack into the trunks, would pigs then go to town on the roots and speed up the proccess of removing the trees from the area?

  5. Hi all, have you found any tricks to get the netting into the forest easily? Without it shorting on small trees and shrubs? We have to try and clear a path for the feather netting with machetes.

    Thanks

  6. “Boer Goats”
    These guys really need to be watched carefully, they are intelligent, mischievous to say the least….and will eat anything, but I doubt they will eat Oleander.
    The kids are the cutest animals !

    1. True story, Jack. I have the same fencing and charger (Premier 1) which we carefully strung, charged & tested – about knocked me on my arse – and our two Boers walked through it like it wasn’t there. Not sure where to go from here but “Plan A” sure didn’t work.

  7. We have just bought 2 lots of Boer twin kids , a doe and her kid. We are raising the twins ourselves to get them used to us so that when we bring in others they will help to settle down the newbies. They are mostly for weed control and have their own goat hotel. They have an electric fence which they have settled to well after the kids got nipped and told everyone else about it and they now stay away from the fence. We however are in tick country and nearly lost a kid to paralysis tick. We are spraying them with a mixture of eucalyptus, tea tree and neem oil. We have also brought in a few old chooks to eat the ticks which we have previously found very useful around the house. So far so good. A work in progress.

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