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Amazing grazing: Goats reduce fire fuel


Guy McCarthy/ Union Democrat Boer and Kiko nanny goats graze Thursday with Jo, their Anatolian Shepherd, on Jack Gardella’s Montezuma Ranch between Jamestown and Chinese Camp.

Rancher Jack Gardella’s grandson was in 4-H when he started asking about goats.

“We’d go to the fair and he’d say ‘Grandpa why don’t you buy some goats?,’” Gardella said Thursday at his ranch between Jamestown and Chinese Camp. “I said ‘How much are you going to put in?’ Eventually we got a few. Then I had a real problem with some weeds. So we got some more goats.”

Now Gardella has a herd of about 50 Boer and Kiko nanny goats and he says they’re brush-clearing dynamos.

“They are truly amazing,” Gardella said. “They’d rather eat weeds and stuff than grass. We had about 40 acres and close to half it was mare’s tail. We tried spraying. We tried cutting. Nothing worked. Then we had the goats in there six to eight months and they got it.”

Goats for hire

Local government agencies have hired goats for their brush-clearing skills over the years. Angels Camp city officials used to hire Sonora-based Bushwacker Goats to graze city-owned land off Highway 49 at the southern end of the town.

Goats were considered superior to cows, tractors, chainsaws, weedeaters and herbicides, because they would eat all the blackberry vines, thistles, nettles and poison oak they could hold. These days, Bushwhacker owner Denny Bettencourt says she’s retired.

Tuolumne County has also hired goats, to graze down excess vegetation, including starthistle and other thistle varieties, at the old Jamestown Landfill. Goats were put to work there in 2012 and 2013.

Goats were so effective county Community Resource Agency staff are now looking to hire more goats to graze the landfill this summer, to help control the spread of thistle and reduce the fire hazard, according to a request for proposals put out this week.

Landfill vegetation

The old landfill was closed in March 2009. Part of the post-closure maintenance plan is to maintain vegetation on the landfill, so that it provides adequate erosion control but does not pose a fire hazard.

The landfill area to be grazed is about 17 acres. The contractor who brings in goats will have to provide their own fencing, shade and water for the goats. Because wild animals, including coyotes and mountain lions, could be in the area it is recommended a person remain onsite. Grazing is expected during June and July.

Bids from contractors are due by 2 p.m. June 14.

Bettencourt used to get $1,650 a month from Angels Camp for the use of her goats.

‘Goats have done the best job’

Angels Camp City Engineer Dave Myers wrote a letter last year to the town’s council explaining why goats were considered useful. The land where grazing was required included sprinklers for irrigation.

“When the use of goats was first tried, the vegetation was about 6 feet tall and obscured the spray heads and valve boxes,” Myers wrote. “Cattle was also tried, but the cows would not eat the vegetation that caused the problems (preferring grass over the weeds) and would occasionally damage the irrigation equipment by rubbing. The goats have done the best job.”

Bettencourt told The Union Democrat in January 2015 she discovered how effective goats can be when they eliminated a 200-acre section of starthistle on a Copperopolis cattle ranch she worked on.

Before she retired from goat grazing, her company contracted with the City of Plymouth. In addition, a contract with the City of San Francisco put her goats to work eating brush for the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System.

Weed eaters

Gardella said he may look into making a bid for the old Jamestown Landfill grazing job.

“I might, especially if my grandson wants to do it,” Gardella said. “I might help him.”

His grandson, Joe Keefe, 19, graduated from Sonora High School on Thursday night.

“The goats can take care of vegetation, no problem,” Gardella said. “The main expense is fencing to keep the goats and dogs safe. We have a lot of coyotes out here and we haven’t had a problem yet. I haven’t seen mountain lion but people tell me they’re here.”

According to The Goat Guide, goats are among the most valuable and versatile animals. Aside from weed eating, brush clearance and fire prevention, goats provide milk and hair when alive. Slaughtered goats yield meat and skins.

Goats have been a source of meat around the world for thousands of years. They are easier and cheaper to raise and manage for smaller communities compared to larger livestock like cattle.

Many charities today prefer to provide goats to impoverished communities because goats are easier to look after, they are generally nice-natured, and they have multiple uses year-round.

For more information about the county Community Resource Agency request for goat-grazing bids, visit www.co.tuolumne.ca.us/DocumentCenter/View/6906 online.

"They are truly amazing. They’d rather eat weeds and stuff than grass. We had about 40 acres and close to half it was mare’s tail. We tried spraying. We tried cutting. Nothing worked. Then we had the goats in there six to eight months and they got it.”

— Jack Gardella, rancher