Nature's Weedeaters: Keeping Goats For Fun And Thinning

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If you happened by the dog park at Rumsey Park last Wednesday, you probably did a double take.

Instead of the usual array of dogs, the park was full of goats happily munching away on just about anything growing there, but especially a pesky, prickly weed called, appropriately enough, goatheads.

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Jackie Begay owns 1,100 goats, but still manages to have a one-on-one relationship with a good many. In fact, more than 300 of Begay's goats have names.

"They were getting terrible out there," Dave Engleman, a Paws in the Park member, said. "They lay real low and grow a little ball like a pea that looks like a mine they put in the ocean to blow up boats. They've got sharp little points, but the goats eat them."

Because of this trait -- eating scrub browse that other animals won't touch -- goats are being increasingly used to thin forest and even private land to reduce fire danger.

Goats are more effective and less expensive than other options, according to John Brock, professor of ecological restoration at Arizona State University East. While some methods of clearing brush cost $450 an acre, goats only cost $173 an acre.

"It's a lot more cost-effective than the (other) choices we have," Brock said. "It's more environmentally friendly, and it benefits the forests and the goats."

The 30 or so goats at the dog park belong to Payson resident Jackie Begay, just a small fraction of her 1,600 goat herd. Begay got into the goat business a few years ago.

"My dad wanted to do something on his allotment, and he called me and I said OK, I'd like to try it," Begay said. "I went on the Internet and called a few people who led me to other people, and that's how I started my father's herd."

Begay's goats are the ones being employed as part of a 2,300-acre forest thinning project south and southeast of Payson, a portion of the area that will eventually be thinned through the Payson Wildland Urban Interface Project. They stayed on the job even through the Willow Fire, and are now just 1.5 miles outside of Payson.

Goats have proven so effective that some homeowners have put them to work clearing their private land. Adrienne Cox and husband Kent, a retired medical doctor, recently purchased four goats to thin their 2.5 acres in Round Valley.

Well, that wasn't quite the reason she originally purchased the goats.

"I just love animals, and I have herding dogs, so we are always scouting for animals that are potentially toys for the dogs," she said. "I did some research on goats and I discovered you don't herd goats, you herd sheep.

"Goats are followers; you lead them. They don't like to be herded.

"I actually found a website for a ranch that's pretty close to here -- Snowflake -- and they had pictures and they were so cute that I had to go see them. Of course, when I saw them I had to have them. What they do for a living is incidental."

Incidental, but effective.

"We have scrub oak, lots of manzanita, lots of squaw bush, and they eat it all," Cox said. "They're out all day, and there's more than enough forage out there for four goats."

Begay had a similar experience using goats to thin her property.

"For about three months, I had 14-20 goats in my back yard," she said. "They did a wonderful job of cleaning up my yard. They pruned all my rose bushes back. They limbed up my trees.

"When they started barking, I took them to the back part of my property and put them in a pen. I had no problem with them doing what they did to my yard, because I knew at the time they were doing it that it was all going to come back and look better anyway, and it has."

But both Cox and Begay agree that goats are more than just eating machines. They also end up making wonderful pets.

"They're really easy to get attached to because they're a lot like dogs in their personalities," Begay said. "When I go out to my goat camp, I get followed around by about 15 goats, and it's kind of fun. They expect me to rub them and pet them just like my dogs do."

Cox's dogs and goats have become fast friends.

"They're a pack," she said. "They've bonded. In fact, the dogs watch them; they're very protective of the goats."

Begay also uses goat milk for cooking. "It has a smaller curd, so it's easier on the digestive system," she said. "It also causes fewer allergies.

"I make ice cream, cheese. I've used it in fudge. It has more flavor than cow's milk, which I think is kind of bland. It's a sweeter flavor."

That's not to say that goats are for everyone.

"Some people get irritated with them because they eat flowers, rose bushes, trees (they bark the trees)," Begay said. "You really have to protect the stuff you love if you're going to have them."

And what you've heard about goats climbing is true.

"They do climb on anything they can get up on," Begay said. "I had a barbecue grill in the back and they climbed up on it and balanced on the top. I had kids all over it."

There are dozens of different breeds of goats. Begay's are primarily Boers and Kikos, while Cox has two Nubians and two Dwarf Nigerians.

Both women recommend doing some research on the Internet before deciding if goats are right for your situation. It's also a good idea to check with your local planning and zoning office to find out if you can have them on your property in the first place.

The website for Black Mesa Ranch, where Cox bought her goats, is www.blackmesaranchonline.com.

Besides goats, which Cox paid about $60 apiece for, you can also buy goat cheese and candy at the ranch.

And if you want to experience goats firsthand, Begay invites you to come and see hers at their current forest browsing location.

"Right across from the Payson Golf Course clubhouse, there's a log cabin and a metal gate," she said. "Go out that gate and straight out about a mile and a half. Take a pickup for the clearance."

The best time to visit is between noon and 2 p.m. when all the goats are in camp, but other times are OK too because some goats stay at the camp all the time.

"I invite the town to go out any time," Begay said.

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