LESLIE — What do you think of when you think of goats — petting zoos, probably, but possibly milk, cheese, maybe meat (it's popular in a lot of ethnic dishes). But what about land maintenance?
If you've been around goats even a little bit, you're aware that they will eat almost anything — even the bark off of a tree, if given enough time.
Brian Gansereit, a farmer in Leslie, describes them as "God-given eating machines," but he doesn't see that ability as a bad thing. In fact, he's creating a service business around it.
Beginning next spring, Gansereit Farms Goat Grazing will use goats and modern portable electric fencing to clear vegetation from overgrown properties.
This environmentally friendly company will specialize in clearing urban, suburban and rural properties in Missouri and surrounding states.
Gansereit is well aware that many established farmers think he's crazy, but the use of goats to clear overgrown areas is nothing new. There are other businesses doing the same thing to much success in other places around the country.
There are a number of benefits to using goats to clear overgrown land and invasive species, beginning with the fact that it is 100 percent natural and creates no pollution, Gansereit said.
Herbicides pollute the soil and water, machinery is loud and emits toxic fumes, and removing vegetation by hand is extremely hard work.
Goats, on the other hand, can navigate steep hills and other areas that are hard or impossible to reach with heavy machinery, Gansereit said. And they are ideal for clearing an overgrown area that may have hidden dangers, like cinder blocks or old tires.
"It's going to be a bad day if you find those the hard way," he remarked.
But perhaps the best thing about using goats to clear invasive species, such as poison ivy, is that their method eliminates the plant growing there for good. It won't grow back.
"The way their jaws are and their teeth, they break down the seed so everything they're taking out that you don't want — the thistle and the poison ivy — they are grinding those seeds apart, so when they come out the back end, they're not replanting them," Gansereit said.
"But there are some plant species, like thistle, that are going to take a couple of applications to really get it taken care of."
Before getting into the goat business, Gansereit and his father, Gary, owned the Kreig Haus hobby shop that was located on Main Street in downtown Washington for several years. Gary died in 2011.
Over the years, Brian Gansereit also did other various other kinds of work. He served in the Army, like his father, from 1993 to '97, and then he served in the Army National Guard from 2001 to 2006.
His idea to start a goat-grazing business developed from an interest in sustainable agriculture, and the clean/slow food movement evolved from having a father with diabetes and a wife employed as a personal trainer.
"It just kind of made sense," said Gansereit, who has a certification in nutrition consulting. "I'm one of those kinds of people who when they start researching something, can't let it go."
That's come full circle with the goats.
One of Gansereit's biggest mentors in the business is Joel Salatin, a farmer in Virginia who also writes books and gives lectures on "small farms, local food systems and the right to opt out of the conventional food paradigm."
Gansereit got in touch with Salatin after hearing one of his lectures on a podcast. He sent him an email wondering if anything would ever come of it.
"(Salatin) called me 10 minutes later from California while he was hauling 400 goats behind him," Gansereit recalled.
"He was a wealth of information about what works, what doesn't work (with goat grazing). He does a lot of fire breaks out there to prevent wildfires. He does stuff in downtown San Francisco.
"Big companies like Google actually use goats to keep up some of the landscaping on their campus."
To get some firsthand experience working with goats, Gansereit found work on a farm in Leslie just minutes from his house where they raise Boer goats for meat.
Boer goats (which means farmer's goat) were bred in South Africa. They were brought to United States in the '80s, mainly to Texas, Gansereit said.
"They are a little more accustomed to a drier climate, but they've been a very popular breed in America."
The farm where he works has about 30-plus goats, and in the beginning Gansereit couldn't tell any of them apart. Now he calls them each by name — admittedly recognizing some by their number tags but most by their markings and personality.
Gansereit and his wife have purchased two goats from the farm and plan to build up their grazing herd to around 30. Ultimately Gansereit said he would like to have as many as 500 to 1,000 goats available for clearing jobs.
Gansereit will transport his goats to a job site and put up portable electric fencing that looks like netting to manage where the goats will graze and prevent them from wandering off. The length of time it will take the goats to clear an area will depend on what they're eating, Gansereit said, but a general rule is that each goat can clear between 150 and 300 square feet per day.
Depending on the size of the area and the number of goats on the job, it could take several days for the work to be complete.
For that reason, Gansereit will have Anatolian shepherd dogs stay with the goats inside the fencing to protect them from predators such as coyotes.