University of California

Goat Browsing


Colfax, CA – In August 2001, a fire roared across Placer County, eating up 2,780 acres of forest. Two days after it started, the fire swept into a canyon along the edge of 520 acres owned by Nancy and Allen Edwards.

The flames rushed up the Edwards’ side of the canyon and devoured 125 acres of their trees. But Allen Edwards had removed underbrush and thinned trees to cut a shaded fuel break 400 feet wide along the top of the ridge. The fuel break slowed the fire while it sheltered some of the 984 California Department of Forestry firefighters called out to battle the blaze. They stopped the fire from barreling down the other side of the mountain and through the town of Colfax. The fire, started by a vehicle, cost $4.5 million and injured 19 firefighters. Luckily, it destroyed no houses and took no lives.

For his forethought, Edwards received an award from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But the loss of part of his tree crop pushed him into looking for “other things to do with our land besides grow trees,” he recalls.

“Historically, we’ve been a tree farm. We’ve produced trees for lumber, mostly,” says Edwards. “The economics of doing that is real marginal, and the cost of the regulations have made it more difficult to make a living at that.”

Three years later, more than 40 Kiko and Boer goats browse through thick brush on a steep hillside of Edwards’ property. The growing herd of goats eats leaves and twigs of trees or shrubs, such as canyon live oak trees and ceanothus brush, rather than graze on grass. Three Great Pyrenees dogs, which live with the goats 24 hours a day, patrol the perimeters of a six-acre paddock to keep mountain lions, bears and coyotes at bay. In the morning the goats browse until 10 a.m., chew their cud until 1 or 2 p.m., and return to browsing.

“I did mechanically what I expect these guys to do biologically,” in removing the underbrush, says Edwards. Besides using the goats to drastically reduce the fire hazard on his land, Edwards derives income by selling the goats for meat. He doesn’t have to set controlled burns anymore, which means no air pollution, and he doesn’t have to pay for an expensive burn permit or hire a smoke management consultant to write a smoke management plan.

The paddock is portable; when the goats finish browsing one area, Edwards moves them to another part of his land. At night, in the winter and spring, Edwards moves the goats to the barn. In the spring, a few weeks after the goats give birth to their kids, he lets them stay in the paddocks for several days at a time.

For several years, the Edwards had wanted to diversify their farm income, and had considered goats. When Roger Ingram, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Placer and Nevada counties, advertised a three-day goat-browsing academy, Allen Edwards signed up, “because I didn’t know anything.”

Goats as a commodity are more common east of the Mississippi than in the West. In restaurants in the South, goat meat often appears on the menu.

But there’s “more and more interest” in using goats in California, says Ingram, because there’s more interest in preventing fires by reducing fuel load in forests, on ranches, and on the increasing number of 5-, 10-, and 20-acre ranchettes springing up on former agricultural land.

“As land gets more chopped up, people that buy the land don’t want to take care of it,” explains Ingram, “so they get an encroachment of brush. Goats are ideal. And they don’t compete with other livestock species that prefer to graze grass instead of brush.”

Edwards and about 30 other landowners or managers spent three days immersing themselves in basic goat husbandry. They learned about parasite management, feed and nutrition. They learned how to market goats for their meat -- with the increasing Latino and Muslim populations in California, there’s more demand for goat meat. They learned how to use goats for fire control and weed abatement, and they spent time working with goats in the field.

Besides organizing two browsing academies – each of which had waiting lists – Ingram helped organize two one-day specialty-meats conferences. Representatives from Chez Panisse Restaurant, Trader Joe’s and Aidells Sausage Company explained their interest in buying locally produced meat products.

The browsing academies have spawned or enhanced several goatherds, says Ingram. One graduate does contract grazing. Another is working with a group of landowners to use goats to control brush and weeds on a 40,000-acre ranch.

Edwards and the High Sierra Natural Resource Conservation District are looking into arranging to have his goats browse adjacent land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The arrangement could be mutually beneficial: the goats reduce the fire hazard in the BLM forest; the browse provides feed for Edwards’s goats.

A limitation to increasing the number of goats in California is a lack of information about nutritional and toxic levels of the shrubs and trees that goats like to eat. Wolfgang Pitroff in the UC-Davis Department of Animal Science is doing research on California’s plants, but more funding is needed to provide the answers that the state’s new goat herders need. For example, in some months, ceanothus produces more protein than alfalfa, and goats thrive. But other months, the plant doesn’t produce enough protein, and Edwards has to provide his goats with supplemental feed.“

There’s all kinds of research out there that’s been done on the nutritional profile of different grazing plants at different times of the year,” says Edwards. “But there’s very little for browsing, because goats have never been a significant factor in California agriculture. You really need that kind of information to know how to manage the animals, because the level of protein and the amount of carbohydrate and the palatability will change from month to month.”

Nevertheless, Edwards regards his goats as an integral part of a concept he calls “highland farming.” (A friend of his jokingly calls it “agroforestry with bagpipes”.) “

We’re in the urban interface belt,” explains Edwards. “It’s all getting chopped up and eaten up by real estate developers.” Part of the reason is because of population pressures from a rapidly expanding Sacramento; another factor is that the economics of growing trees for lumber is going from bad to worse.

“And so we’re trying to figure out how to change that economic paradigm and have a combination of things going on so that people can make a living on 160 acres,” he says. Edwards’ winning combo? Trees for lumber and stove wood, goats, orchards and market gardens, such as the salad greens he and Nancy grow for farmer’s markets. “We’re up in this cold little valley here and we were growing greens when all the other local growers couldn’t grow them because it was too hot,” he says.

Edwards believes that by applying concepts of highland farming, a family can make a living on as little as 80 acres. “If they’ve got two acres of market garden, and do the livestock and the firewood, they can make $50,000 to $60,000 a year,” he says.

His motivation for pursuing his idea comes from the heart. “Personally, I want to figure out a way that I can keep one or both of my kids around here, because I like my kids,” says Edwards. “But broader than that, I just don’t want to see all this land ripped up by subdivisions.”

-- by Jane Ellen Stevens
April 2005

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