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The market for goat grazing

Renting goats for eco-friendly fuel reduction

"OAKLAND--It's a good year to be a goat looking for work.

A wet winter and an early, unreasonably warm spring has resulted in a bumper crop of dry grasses on East Bay hillsides and a big fire danger to homes flanking the wildlands. All of this fuel adds up to big business for the goats, who are hired for about $1 a day to gobble up the dangerously dry stuff before the fire season strikes in earnest this summer. A few fires have already blackened East Bay wildlands this spring ...

Once the goats are through with a hillside, most of the fuel is either eaten or trampled, meaning that a fire could only move slowly. Fire officials say a person could walk away from such a fire ..."

"Just who first drafted the genus Capra for environmentally friendly fire safety duty is not clear. But certainly among the pioneers were Brea McGrew, a veterinarian, and her husband, Bob, a fireman, whose four-footed weed eaters have been at it since 1991." "After the 1991 firestorm swept the Oakland-Berkeley hills, levelling hundreds of homes, the environmentally friendly fuel reduction method caught on like wildfire.

'It's a very popular thing to do,' said Terri Holleman, who calls her Orinda goat grazing company Goats R Us. 'It's the current ecologically correct mode of doing fuel mitigation. People don't want controlled burns. They don't want chemicals used. Hand crews are OK, but that's a lot of hand labor and sometimes noisy machines.'

Thousands of goats are roaming the hills this spring in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, with public agencies paying upwards of $300,000 annually for the grazing...

Herders say they're not worried about the competition that's sprouting up. After all, development near wildland areas isn't about to stop any time soon and the mainstay of their business--grass--will never stop growing.

Environmentally conscious homeowners are also looking for goats to graze their yards. But herders warn that most of these small jobs are best done by hand crews unless the animals are already working nearby. Transporting goats is expensive, and landscaping has to be fenced or tarped to stop the nibble-happy goats from eating more than their share.

'We all have quite a bit of work,' Hollemand said. 'There's a lot of people who would like us to expand our business, but I'm not willing to expand it beyond what's comfortable for me.'

Hanneken, who is learning that the goat-grazing business is harder than it looks, is also taking a slow-growth approach to his business. 'I think I knew more than just a small amount about goats and the goat business,' said Hanneken, who gazed goats in the Ozarks on his cattle ranch for 20 years to keep down the weeds and brush, 'but not so much about this area. You have to go through the school of hard knocks.' For example, it's a lot more expensive to keep the goats during the off-season in Northern California than in rural areas. Land is expensive, so is food ..."

Sources: Sandra A Harris, "Grazing, Not Blazing: Renting goats for eco-friendly fuel reduction is the hot business in East Bay Hills," San Francisco Examiner, June 1, 1997. And Edwin Kiester, jr., "Getting Their Goats," Smithsonian Magazine, October 2001.

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