Demand for Grazing Goats Is Growing Like Wildfire
Ruminants are a righteous way to reduce fire risks
When Mike Canaday started renting goats in 2003, most of the calls he received were from landowners who wanted to clear dense brush on their properties. As word spread about the effectiveness of the four-legged lawnmowers, Canady started fielding questions from prospective customers about whether his herd of 150 goats could eat enough brush to create firebreaks in wildfire-prone areas. The answer was yes. Today, Canaday owns 3,500 Boer, Kiko, LaMancha, and Spanish breeds, and his company, Living Systems Land Management, is so busy that he has to maintain a waiting list for people to rent out his goats. He attributes the growth of his San Francisco Bay Area–based business to a single factor: wildfires.
“We are screaming busy from mid-April to mid-July because of the fires,” he says.
Across California and the West, goats are being dispatched to overgrown patches of land to chomp down vegetation and help create firebreaks to prevent fires from jumping from wildlands to homes and businesses. Thanks to their voracious appetites—goats can eat up to 10 pounds of vegetation per day—and ability to navigate difficult terrain, the ravenous ruminants are on the front lines of fire prevention.
“When we graze goats in an area, all of the fuel is removed before fire season and it doesn’t grow back until the following season—and it’s much safer to have goats graze difficult terrain,” says Kenneth VanWig, chief of the Ventura County Fire Department, one of Canaday’s clients. The fire department began using goats about a decade ago, and VanWig says the four-legged firefighters are the best fire prevention tools available. “We’ve had huge success.”
While there are no statistics on the number of acres goats are clearing or the number of goat rental businesses offering fire prevention services, there is solid data that climate change is increasing the likelihood that fires will become more intense while also lengthening the fire season. In 2018, 43,255 fires (and counting) have been reported nationwide, burning almost 6 million acres—the highest number of fires since 2012.
Scenes of wildfires destroying entire suburban neighborhoods have led to increased demand for goat-rental companies across the West. Companies like The Goat Works, City Grazing, and We Rent Goats (which operates in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Nevada) all market their herds as an ecofriendly method of fire prevention. One of the co-owners of California-based Ranchito Tivo told the LA Daily News that he now receives more calls for work than his goats can handle. The increased demand has even spawned goat franchises like Rent-A-Ruminant and Rent a Goat.
Most of the goats in Canaday’s herd are rented to large landowners like golf courses, government agencies, and utilities. He doesn’t take projects less than five acres in size, and some brush-clearing projects consist of hundreds of acres. Canaday and his crew of 14 herders erect portable fencing to contain the goats, fills water troughs, and set the herds loose on sites from Santa Rosa in Northern California to Orange County. Herders move the herds (which can include as many as 450 goats) almost daily, establishing a grid for targeted vegetation removal. Then the caprine cleaning crew noshes all the shrubbery in their path and, voila, the cleared area becomes a firebreak.
The Ventura County Fire Department budgets $935 per acre to have goats graze at two sites: The 29 acres near the Los Padres National Forest in Ojai and the 13-acre Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Fire chief VanWig would like to see the budget increase so the fire department can rent additional goats to create even more firebreaks; when that happens, he hopes local companies can keep up with the demand. “There’s a lot of interest in using goats for fire prevention,” he says. “We’re getting a lot more calls from homeowners who want referrals; we keep a list of contacts to give them because the requests are constant.”
Tony Gonzalez, owner of Gonzalez Brush Busters, is another goat herder who is hiring out more goats than ever before. Gonzalez rents his herd of Kiko goats to clear brush on plots of land ranging from half an acre to more than 50 acres around Lake County, California. About three-quarters of the calls Gonzales receives are from homeowners associations, businesses, and public agencies located near previous wildfires.
“Once fire season starts, the phone never stops ringing,” says Gonzalez, who plans to double the size of his 200-goat herd. His current herd is almost entirely booked for the 2019 fire season.
“Unless you pour concrete, the grasses will keep coming back; I call that job security.”
Goat herders like Canaday and Gonzalez say targeted grazing for fire prevention is a more environmental method than chemical brush removal and safer than controlled burns or mechanized abatement that could, during times of drought, spark an out-of-control fire. “Once people see what the goats can do, they want us to come back,” Gonzalez says.
Although goats are adorable and the demand for ruminant rental is on the rise, Canaday cautions that the business is far from a get-rich-quick scheme. In addition to upward of $100,000 in initial investment for grazing land, livestock trailers, portable fencing, and a herd of goats, the animals require constant oversight. The recent escape of 118 goats hired through We Rent Goats to clear public lands near a Boise neighborhood is an example of what can happen if herders leave the animals unattended.
Canaday believes the effort is worth the investment. “Goats are sustainable,” he says. “You can’t pour poisons on the ground for years to kill the weeds and think it’s sustainable. Goats, if properly managed, leave the earth better than they found it, and you know that your goats can help save people’s homes and, sometimes, people’s lives.”