The city of Andover, Massachusetts has some unwanted guests: invasive species like the European buckthorn tree and the strangling bittersweet vine from Asia are shouldering out local wildlife. To make matters worse, in tight times the city can't always afford the mowing machines and the manpower required to keep the invaders at bay. That was until they brought in the experts--goats.
The mowing "machines are massive, constantly breaking down, [and they] use a lot of fuel so we have actually had to skip several years of the mowing program because it's very expensive," says Bob Douglas, the director of Andover's Conservation Commission.
Luckily, the commission recently hit upon a neat solution when one of their volunteers spoke to Lucy McKain, who tends dairy goats next to one of the city's preserves. They worked out an arrangement where her animals get to graze the land and the commission saves a few thousand dollars a year. The fix was a win-win for everyone.
But even if the services weren't being offered for free, Douglas says, "I would certainly pick the goats over the machines, even if we could get it done for less or the same amount that mowing machines would cost." City and state governments in Maryland, New York, and Colorado have implemented similar initiatives.
In fact, there is a niche industry of businesses that provide mowing services using livestock, and some forward thinking companies like Google and Yahoo maintain their properties that way.
"People will want to do a green business like this, but interest will wane over time if it doesn't save them money in the long run," says Don Watson, a former CPA who owns the Loveland, Colorado-based company Rocky Mountain Wooly Weeders. That's why he tries to take on projects where his sheep offer a cost-effective alternative to mechanized or human mowers.
Watson's flock is comprised of as many as 5,000 sheep that nip fire hazards and noxious weeds in the bud on 4,000 acres per year. The sheep prove the best option for many organizations, such as vineyards and motorsports complexes, because in addition to providing fertilizer, they can traverse steeper areas machines can't reach. Plus, they don't compact the soil in a vineyard or disturb the indigenous species in a preserve.
Watson started the mowing operation as an additional revenue stream for his company Napa Valley Lamb, which was having trouble making ends meet by selling meat and wool. Seeking advice for his struggling business, Watson called a friend who was a winemaker who immediately offered him a $35,000 contract. That's when Watson knew he had hit upon a potential business.
Mike Canaday, who runs California Grazing, a company that provides goat and sheep mowing services, says that while the category of livestock mowing has "a huge chance for growth and expansion, there's a lot of work involved and you need to know the animals. It's not something you could franchise; there's a huge learning curve."
Watson also cautions that the business is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. You have to be "willing to work 24-hours-a-day, 365 days a year," he says. "Sheep are constantly looking for a place to lay down and die" whether from poisonous plants, predators, or traffic. With that being said, he also sees a lot of opportunity for growth. He adds, "We need to do a better job of marketing what we do and we could probably double our revenue."