Briana Murphy may not carry a crooked staff, but with a blonde braid slung over one shoulder and a straw hat firmly perched on her head, she wears the title of shepherdess well. Standing in front of her herd of goats as they graze on ivy in front of the Crop Science Building on the Oregon State University campus, she jokes about chasing a particularly stubborn escape artist across a golf course for two hours. That goat was subsequently ‘fired.’
Murphy has owned her own sustainable landscape management business, “Goat Power,” for three years, and takes her herd of around 40 goats across Oregon and Washington to help property owners combat invasive plants with a natural, and furry solution. She’s worked everywhere from vineyards to apartment complexes, tackling all kinds of tricky situations with her hooved co-workers.
Now she’s been hired by Oregon State to bring 30 of her goats out to a particularly aggressive patch of English ivy that had overtaken the property on the east side of the Crop Science Building.
Contrary to popular belief and cartoon depiction, goats don’t eat everything down to the ground, but they do a great job in defoliating plants and reducing underbrush dramatically, to the point that it can be managed by hand, or eventually eradicated by repeat herd visits. They are opportunistic eaters however, so even though there won’t be bare earth once they’re done, if you have plants you want to protect or save, you have to restrict goat access by wire cages or strategically fencing the goats away from those trees or bushes. And don’t plan to immediately plant desirable plants in the areas goats have cleared off.
“It takes awhile to reduce the population of invasive plants before introducing other plants,” Murphy said, possibly up to several years of repeated work.
Goats do a quick, effective job, especially when a large project is broken up into smaller sections for intensive munching. Murphy puts up a flexible electric fence, powered by a solar powered energizer that keeps the fence live under most conditions.
Time on site depends on the type of terrain, the type of plantings, and the size of the property.
“Brush density is your biggest variable,” she said. Murphy charges a flat day rate instead of by the acre, because a property’s brush density could be anywhere from sparse shrubs to blackberries climbing a dozen feet into trees. The small area at OSU will take about a week of grazing, due to the thickness of the underbrush. Other larger, less dense areas might take four days.
Even though they’re voracious eaters, goats like a variety of plant choices, so in order to really mow down an area, Murphy does overgrazing, that is, keeping the goats in an area a day or two longer than they’d like. While this encourages them to really strip the plant material, it also gets them a little grumpy, and gives them more incentive to escape, which is why she’s always either on-site or within a half an hour of the project, in order to carefully manage her herd.
“My goal is that you are sad when the goats leave,” she said. “They didn’t turn into an irritant. How invested a person is in their animals makes them a better purveyor of this skill.”
The herd is made up of mostly wethers (castrated males), and almost all are either Spanish or Kiko goats, types of heritage breed meat goats.
“They’re hardier and do well on low-quality browse,” Murphy said. “They’re less susceptible to parasites and have really good feet.”
They’re also good in the rain, which comes in handy during Oregon winters. Typically the goats work on a property for between four days and a few weeks, in a variety of conditions, so hardiness and temperament are key.
Goats are also great to send in when the terrain is so covered in brush that it’s hard to ascertain what exactly is underneath all those leaves. Murphy was working at Chemeketa Community College when she discovered a six-foot retaining wall and some old propane tanks that the college didn’t know were there. Had they blindly gone in with a tractor, there could have been some serious problems.
By their nature, goats dispose of the plant material themselves, turning it into fertilizer and eliminating disposal fees.
“It saves you money if you know how to use the tool,” she said.
Bill Coslow, landscape supervisor with facilities services at Oregon State, hired Murphy after hearing her present at a conference several years ago. He said the university is interested in trying out cost-effective, herbicide-free approaches to landscape management, and wanted to give the goats a trial run.
“This is for our own evaluation and serves as a demonstration to others on campus,” Coslow said. “We’re interested in anything that uses no herbicides and doesn’t need fuel for equipment, and doesn’t require us to haul off the brush and send it to a landfill.”
Upon completion, Coslow will probably have student workers lop off any remaining stems and cover up the area with cardboard and mulch, to see how much of the ivy can be killed off. English ivy is particularly vigorous, but he said if even half the area is successfully cleared he will consider it a success. And if the numbers work out, Murphy could be hired for more projects in the future.
For now he’s happy that the goats are drawing so much attention.
“Part of the objective is to make it a topic of conversation around sustainability,” he said.
Al Shay, a horticulture instructor at Oregon State, previously invited Murphy to speak to one of his classes, and was impressed with her approach to sustainable, pesticide-free landscape management. He is thrilled that Oregon State has hired her for the Crop Science project, because it’s the perfect opportunity to open up the discussion about how to tackle invasive species without blasting them with chemicals.
“This is a way to save money and do something more sustainable,” Shay said. And as an instructor, he sees the value in the conversations that open up when students and faculty walk by and see the goats doing their jobs.
Conversation is exactly what Dave Alba, organic education specialist with Oregon Tilth, wants to foster. He hosted a peer to peer discussion with Murphy and a crowd of local landscapers, city and county officials, and OSU students and staff on July 17, allowing Murphy to discuss her work as the goats munched behind her. His program promotes sustainable landscape practices like “Goat Power,” and provides people with accreditation in organic land care.
“These peer-to-peer sessions allow people to learn on-site, and also help people connect as professionals,” Alba said. And it opens up the public’s eyes to ways they can utilize pesticide free weed management strategies on their own properties.
Murphy answered questions ranging from what plants are dangerous to goats – rhododendrons and tansy ragwort are the biggest concerns in the Willamette Valley – to misconceptions about what goats can actually do – buying one goat to tackle your five acre property is definitely not a good idea.
In fact, Murphy doesn’t encourage property owners to buy their own goats. Goats need a lot of care and attention, including health monitoring, protection from dogs and predators, and many other needs. The cost of maintaining a small, healthy herd on your property is probably less cost effective than hiring trained professionals to do an intensive treatment.
“A lot of times people have a romantic notion (about goats) that is not based on the reality of the situation.”
Murphy’s view of goats is not romantic, but it’s loving as well as practical. She’d like to eventually grow her herd but for now, she and her 40 goats are keeping very, very busy.
“That’s the thing about goats,” she said. “It’s like trying to chase a herd of locusts. It’s a broad swath of destruction.” But destruction of the best kind.
~ Theresa Hogue