Goat mowers

Elvis (dark) and Son of Saturn (white with big horns) at Coyote Ridge Stables in Marlboro

In this challenging economic climate, how can the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site afford to hire a dozen staff members dedicated to landscaping grounds around the clock?

David Hayes, natural resource officer for the Hyde Park estate, said meeting payroll involves little more than tossing the workers a few bags of feed every week.

Well, maybe there’s a little more to the story. In 2009, Hayes imported a dozen Nubian and Nubian-mixed goats to clear invasive species from a steep, seven-acre slope behind the mansion too sharply angled for human landscapers to deal with. Hayes recalled the goats, not thrilled with their new, unfamiliar environment, were an escape risk the first night. However, once they settled in they went to work, decimating cluttering weeds and small trees such as the Asian-origin ailanthus. Delectables favored by the cloven-hoofed crowd include Japanese barberry, black locust and the Oriental bittersweet vine; Hayes said that the flock of goats found the berry vine particularly tempting. When he pulls down a bittersweet vine, his four-footed work crew stops what they are doing and races over to grab it out of his hands.

Contrary to popular belief, the goats will not eat everything. Hayes says they are not fans of pokeweed.

Hayes admitted that the goats have no pet names, but are addressed with a reactive nomenclature, such as “Hey, get down, stupid!” and “Get off me!”

The animals, from Rhinebeck goat breeder Larry Cihanek, are mostly all dairy goats. Containment involves an electric fence, which the goats have been accustomed to since kid-hood. Males are more likely to try to bust loose, said Hayes, in search of bleating females. On the advice of the breeder, Hayes supplements his crew’s fibrous fare with 12 percent protein feed.

Dora the Devourer

Elsie Nicklin-McKay of Marlboro grew up on a large family farm which always included livestock. As a child, Nicklin-McKay became attached to one of the goats, her pet and friend Dora. Dora would graze contently until she would hear the school bus, and then bolt to the bottom of the driveway to meet Elsie.

Nicklin-McKay was always appreciative of the staunch yet comical nature of goats. “My goat was allowed to roam free around the farm because she was my pet,” Nicklin-McKay described. “Until one day my parents decided to tie her up because she had gotten so bad about eating everything, including my mother’s hundred-year-old jade plant. Well, my dog would bark at confined Dora until the goat would tangle the dog up in the rope and then butt the dog. Our dog learned really quickly that there were better ways to get entertainment.”

Many years later, Nicklin-McKay got her next goat, Kirby, at a yard sale. He came with his own goat house. He proved as endearing as Dora had been. Kirby would have lively conversations with Nicklin-McKay’s young son, bleating back in response to whatever her son said. Kirby was meant to be a worker goat to help tame the weeds on the 60-acre farm. Alas, he was more interested in the neighbor’s newly planted trees, causing a potentially serious rift in community relations.

“And then we were stupid enough to get another goat, and we got a mother goat and a baby …,” Nicklin-McKay sighed. She sold the baby and kept the mother as a milking goat. “She cleared everything in the back, but then chewed on the bark of the bigger trees, which girdled the tree, and it eventually died.” Nicklin-McKay has vowed never to own another goat again.

Goat-hacks make life easier

A debudded and gelded goat is the way to go. Horned animals can get their heads stuck in fences and feeders, and they will use their horns as weapons against other animals or people. Goats possess a unique characteristic that separates them from other types of livestock: they would rather eat brush and weeds than grass because they are browsers, while cattle are grazers. Another advantage of goats is that, unlike a bulldozer, they control brush and weeds without disturbing existing grass and soil.

The most resounding characteristic of goats is their innate stubbornness. Jenna Fisher Lass of Highland said she tried for one hot moment to go the goat route after hearing about goat mowing. She got her goats from a friend who had “extras.” Lass was disappointed. “We tried, but once they got a taste of hand-fed grapes and greens and carrots they got lazy and stopped earning their keep,” she said.

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