Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Greener pastures

The goats were running out of food in their area. One of the final steps Jace took was to cut down the young poplar and locust trees, that the goats had stripped the bark and lower branches from, so they could eat the remaining leaves. These trees were a few inches in diameter at most. The Goat Busters told us that the goats generally won't bother a tree with a trunk about the size of your leg.

We scouted out the area they would move them to next; an adjoining section, which would make the fence- and goat-relocation more efficient. I asked Jace and Scott if they would mind if I pitched in with the work. So there we were, on a beautiful October morning, clearing a new fence line.

Jace took to the thickest area with his chainsaw. Scott and I started from the other end. I went up ahead a little bit to start clearing the big stuff, mostly using a set of clippers and an old heavy sickle and Scott followed with some heavy duty, gas-powered clippers, and made sure everything was cut low and wide.

The goats bleated with anticipation…

Once the perimeter was cleared for the fence, Scott and I started running the new fence. He would unroll several feet of it and hand me the stake, which I would push into the ground. The stakes were already attached to the fence…the tough part getting it in without being stopped by rocks. Once the fence had been run, Scott went around and tightened it up here and there. He tested the voltage to make sure there wasn't any interference and it was looking good.

Lastly, Scott opened up a shared section of the fence and herded the goats into their new area. They didn't need too much extra encouragement; they were happy to have a new, green, thick area to eat in!

This is a really thick area, mostly wooded. I snapped a couple of pictures, but mostly I shot some video. I will get those clips on the blog soon!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Almost done

Well, the goats are winding down. It's actually looking more brown than green in their area now--a huge change. They seem to be turning up their noses at the stickweed, which is about the only green, leafy thing left in there; we've decided that they're just not going to eat that, but we can easily take it down with a machete, sickle or scythe. Jace thinks the goats will be moving on within a day or two.

We're really happy with this whole goat experiment. It's been really nice to clear our land this way instead of with machines. (Of course, Jace and Scott did use some gas-powered tools to clear the fenceline, but they were two guys on foot--much easier on the soil than a large heavy machine like a bulldozer.)

Having goats in there for 10 or 11 days meant that we went back there to hang out and watch them, which in turn means we got to know our spot better. We've identified more trees (including a young persimmon--woo hoo!) and observed more about our soil and wildlife. The process was quiet and gradual instead of loud and sudden. With Jace and Scott coming over to feed the dogs, we got lots of chances to chat with them, which was really nice. All in all, it felt like we were changing our land in a low-impact way.

- Erika

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Goats make the difference!

We went up to see the goats last night after work. I hadn't visited them at all the day before. That short break allowed me to see how much they really are getting done—wow! Suddenly the back field looks, well, like a field! There's so much less foliage than there used to be. You can see the ground easily.

The goats have also adopted very faint paths that we've used in the past, making them much more obvious and defined.

Standing at the fence, looking into this transformed landscape, I could almost feel the sickle in my hand. It's really tempting to jump in there and take down the rest of the bare stalks and, as John said, dig up what's left of the poplar saplings with the cutting mattock. I'm sure when the goats leave we will have a work session like that, but I'm also sure that the goats haven't done all their magic yet. More transformations to come!

These two goats are the feared odd couple of the herd--a big mean white bearded goat and its small black companion. As Jace says, when they come through, the rest of the goats make way!

They're not shy around us, either.

- Erika

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Adaptations and observations

When Jace stopped by to check on the herd Monday, Erika and I happened to have already been back there, hanging out and commenting on the progress. She noted that the area was starting to get that barnyard scent (in a good way!) and that immediately tied a lot of other observations together for me. Organic matter is getting worked into the topsoil, stalks are tromped down and dried, droppings are being dropped (though unless you find a large flat rock, it's hard to tell), and we're starting to be able to see the ground between stripped stalks of stickweed as you look out across the field. We get the sense that something healthy is being accomplished.

The goats have also started eating more bark and are grazing the thorny stuff a little more. Jace helped them out by snapping down some poplar saplings; all the goats rushed over excitedly, ba-a-a-a-ing, and chomped away at the leaves.

This, and the fact that the goats have done-in a handful of juniper trees that have been caught in the action, got me thinking about some of our earlier conversations about what to clear and what not to clear. Regardless of the impracticality of having several small trees sucking water and casting shadows in an area that we may one day garden on, it's never easy to just cut down a tree. But, having made the decision to let the goats clear this piece of land, their natural appetites are making some choices for us (with the exception of the red bud trees that were protected by some extra fencing). And this feels good. Or at least, it feels better. The goats are getting fed, and they're returning the trees to the soil in a form that will be usable to the next generation of plants. We have lots of saplings, but we have little soil. So this feels like a good trade off. Also in our case, there's another few acres of this type of growth, so it's not like we've extinguished the poplar and juniper population (and it's not like we couldn't wait five minutes for another poplar grove to spring up if we had to).

And the experiment rolls on!

- John

Monday, September 22, 2008

Life with goats

We've now been with goats for four days or so. Most mornings we've gone up to take a look soon after we wake up, and then checked on them at least once more after that. It's not a chore at all - we just go up the hill to watch them for a little while and enjoy the show.

In the past, when we'd go back to that part of our land, we'd usually try to imagine changes we could make at some hazy time in the future. Now, changes are happening! The goats have made themselves at home, the spot feels busy and active, and every time we go there it looks a little different. Sometimes when we approach they're in the middle of a meal. Other times they're lying down resting, and when they hear us they jump up and trot away from us a few steps. We usually see Sara and Emma, the big white dogs, and Sara is getting a little friendlier with us every day. (Emma's still pretty shy.)

The goats are a lot of fun to watch. They munch on everything, although they definitely like some things better than others - they've already got the small poplar trees pretty well stripped and have even eaten some of the bark (unless maybe that got taken off by their hooves when they bend the trees down to get the tops). They also like juniper trees and Chinese privet. We have tons of yellow blooming stickweed and they're not as excited about that, but we're hoping they'll eat it when the other stuff is gone.

We see them standing on rocks, cleverly pulling trees down for maximum munching, and occasionally butting heads with each other. One of my favorite sights is when all 10 of them get into a thick area of weeds and rustle around in all directions like a disorganized school of fish.

And they really are clearing out the area. Especially in certain spots, it looks dramatically different. We're looking forward to seeing that continue!

- Erika


Thursday afternoon, Jace and Scott delivered the herd - ten goats and two great pyrenees pups, Sara and Emma. The goats were enjoying their new environment, probably because it was full of tasty new things to eat. We watched as they nibbled the leaves off the stickweed, chomped on privet, and pulled down tender saplings.

The Goat Busters explained how to deactivate the electric fence should we decide to visit with the goats inside the fence. Really? We can go on in? Fun! The animals are friendly and docile, if not a little shy; goats and dogs alike.

The set up is quite simple. Inside the fence is plenty of fresh water for the animals, and a couple of food bowls for Sara and Emma. Outside the fence: the fence charger and battery (housed in wooden boxes), and a couple of pails for feed and field supplies such as a voltmeter, to check the fence current for indications of interference or poor charge.

And just like that, we've got goats in full effect!

- John

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Goat fence me in

After Jace and Scott surveyed the site with us, they got right down to work clearing the perimeter and making way for the fence. The electric fence needs at least a two-foot clearance on either side to minimize the risk that the thick vegetation will interfere with its operation.

This doesn't look like easy work; it's thick with thorns, small stumps, rocks, and weeds. With a combination of tools, the Goat Busters blazed much of the border within a couple of hours. After they left for the day, Erika and I took a walk up to the field and had a look.

The "top o' the prop," as we sometimes refer to it, is equipped with two camping chairs and a table made from two oak post scraps with a slab of soapstone layed across them. The elevated spot slopes southeast and provides a nice view of the blue ridge mountains, and in the winter time, some lights in town. We enjoy sitting up there, spotting birds, having a glass of wine, just enjoying the environment...sometimes discussing the little strawbale cottage that we'd like to build here or how we might expand our veggie operation one day. It was really cool to see how this field will be temporarily fenced in and imagine how the herd of goats will eat down and fertilize the area, which is now totally overgrown with summer.

A few days later, Jace and Scott were back at it, actually installing the fence. The electric fence looks like white netting, about three feet high. They set fiberglass stakes every so many feet and the fence clips on to them. It occurred to me later that they might have had some trouble setting the stakes; we know first-hand how rocky our place is. Jace, always the optimist, said "now I know I don't have the rockiest soil in Nelson County!"

They finished setting up the fence, but it was getting darker. Jace thought that, if he hurried, he might be able to get the goats up there that night, but as it turned out, time ran out for the evening. Darkness settled in and the screech owls started to call.

- John