Have goats, will travel
T&V Livestock offers an eco-friendly alternative for clearing vegetation
Terry and Vera Adams waded through a small sea of Billy goats at their Corning ranchette last week, trying to think of just exactly how many of the animals they own.
All summer long, most of the herd—their female (nanny) goats and babies (kids)—have been on the go, transported from location to location throughout Northern California, eating down grasses, weeds, brush and other vegetation. Counting the male goats surrounding them in a large fenced pasture back at the couple’s home, they figured their stock is up to about 1,400-or-so animals.
It’s been a good year for T&V Livestock, the Adams’ family-run business that contracts with private landowners and public agencies in need of vegetation control. And with today’s focus on health and the environment, they’re bound to get busier.
“The public really goes for it. They like the idea of no sprays and burning,” said Terry of his goats (and a few sheep). “It’s a pretty environmentally friendly way of doing things.”
Dale Shippelhoute of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agrees, which is one of the reasons he contracted with the couple to bring the animals to several federally owned properties over the summer.
Currently, goats are chomping their way through vegetation at the Stone Lakes refuge just 10 miles south of Sacramento, along a wildland-urban interface in Elk Grove. Residents in towns bordering the FWS site have been receptive to the project, which, unlike prescribed burning, doesn’t adversely affect air quality.
“Goats are getting more popular in that they’re more environmentally friendly,” Shippelhoute said.
Ordinarily, tractors and other heavy machinery, followed by hand crews with chainsaws, have been used for fire-prevention measures on FWS land. Grazing goats are less invasive and quieter than those methods.
Shippelhoute is the agency’s fire management officer and his job is increasingly critical these days. As firefighters from the North State and around the nation battled this summer’s spate of disastrous wildland fires known as the Butte Lighting Complex, Shippelhoute was working on a somewhat unusual preventative measure of using goats at several locations of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.
The animals ate down dry grasses, invasive weeds and other types of vegetation considered hazardous fuels for wildland fires.
Having spent more than 20 years as a firefighter for the National Forest Service before joining FWS last year, Shippelhoute has enough first-hand experience to know exactly what dangers California is facing in light of the unusually dry conditions leading to the series of lighting-ignited fires.
“It’s definitely one of the worst years,” he said last month as the fires continued to rage, “especially this early in the season.”
All told, Butte County’s blazes ravaged about 60,000 acres, destroying more than 100 structures and killing one resident, a Concow man. Cal Fire estimates the resulting damage and the manpower to contain the natural disaster at a cost of $85 million.
However, Shippelhoute pointed out that the peak fire season, which runs into October, isn’t yet over. Using the goats at the beginning of the season is one way to lower the risk at FWS properties for the months to come.
In June, the goats were stationed along the river near Hamilton City, eating down vegetation on about 24 acres of the Pine Creek unit, a 563-acre spread bordering Highway 32 that’s one of the newest properties acquired by the federal agency. (They were stationed there last summer, too, for this pilot project.)
Weeks later, they moved northward to another refuge, a 1,149-acre property about six miles east of Corning along the Sacramento River called the Rio Vista unit.
During a mid-summer tour of the site, Shippelhoute pointed to swaths where the goats had gobbled up waist-high vegetation. Many of the areas lay against the perimeter of the refuge, close to private property and a couple of homes. Keeping the dry matter down helps protect the residences in the event of a wildfire at the refuge—and vice versa, he noted.
“If we had a fire here and grass like this, it would rock right through here,” said Shippelhoute of a tall, dry patch adjacent to an open area where the goats established a clearing.
Confined within electric fences at targeted regions, the animals also made fast work of thick brush and the foliage of trees up to about five feet in height, helping reduce ladder fuels. Amazingly, the goats ate back several invasive plants, including prickly weeds such as yellow star thistle.
Altogether, goats roamed about 45 acres of the property in areas with a higher probability of fire, near homes and roads, and also close to locations where the agency has undertaken significant restoration projects.
That’s another advantage to using the animals, acknowledged Joe Silveira, a wildlife biologist who has monitored the goats’ work.
The riparian and floodplain habitat is vital to a number of threatened and endangered species—the valley elderberry long-horned beetle, bank swallows and the yellow-billed cuckoo, just to name a few. Like many other FWS properties, this piece of land had previously been private farmland. Silveira said catastrophic fire there would ruin the restoration efforts that have taken many years to establish.
“The bottom line is the goats are one of our important tools in reducing hazardous fuels,” he said.
Back at the ranchette, the Adamses have been busy tending to their animals, and traveling to the Elk Grove refuge and to a former landfill in Napa where the animals are being used for vegetation abatement around sensitive pumps and pipes used to extract methane gas from the waste buried there.
In the coming months they will transport the goats to other sites, including levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, as a flood-prevention measure.
“There are quite a few applications for sheep and goats,” Vera explained.
Aided these days by their two kids (children, not goats)—Marly, 14, and Terrance, 9—the Adamses have run T&V Livestock for nearly a decade, learning the ins and outs of an operation that is much more complicated than it may sound.
Caring for the creatures means transporting them, along with everything they need to thrive: water, supplements and other supplies. They also have hired help live on site in a trailer and specially trained guard dogs, Anatolian shepherds, to protect them from predators.
Business is strong this year, but Vera says some seasons have been pretty thin. She also warns that goats are tricky to care for; they are susceptible to parasites and cold weather.
While the creatures require a lot of time and effort, Vera insists the family likes having them.
“We enjoy them, they’re fun animals.” Seconds later she added, wryly: “We haven’t had a real vacation since we’ve had the goats.”