Lawn mowing by livestock
A lawn crew of goats lost their jobs in Detroit earlier this month.
It happened in one of those empty areas in the center of Detroit, where houses have been torn down and vacant lots are filled with tall weeds.
The goats came from a farm outside the city, a farm run by a billionaire owner of a hedge fund, if that makes any difference to the story. Mark Spitznagel’s plan was to bring his dairy goats into a blighted section of Detroit and hire local unemployed people to herd them. The goats would clear the land, possibly opening it up for an urban farm.
Trouble is, it’s not actually legal to bring livestock into the city, and no one at City Hall seemed to be aware of Spitznagel’s plan.
“I have never heard of such a thing,” Linda Vinyard, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mike Duggan, told The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. “There are ordinances in our charter that prohibit grazing by goats on public property.”
The city ordered the goats out of town, and the project is on hold.
Mowing by livestock used to be common in urban areas. There’s a reason the big open lawn in New York City’s Central Park is called Sheep Meadow. Sheep also were once used in Prospect Park, the biggest park in Brooklyn.
And there are a growing number of operations employing goats to munch down weeds along roadsides, in parks, vacant lots and lawns.
In San Francisco, City Grazing has a crew of 100 goats that can be hired out, a few goats at a time, for lot clearing. With drought conditions in California, the goats expect to get a lot of work this summer clearing underbrush in parks and public lands to prevent wildfires.
In Maryland there’s an operation called Green Goats that also uses ruminant mowers. Owner Mary Bowen told a Capital News Service reporter that her goats offer an alternative to herbicides, since they’ll eat poison ivy and other unpleasant weeds.
Goats can also clear around and under trees, areas that can be tough for gas-powered mowers and even hand-held weed choppers.
We are using live mowers in our yard too, although perhaps more by serendipity than design.
Our oxen — one older ox and two calves — graze in the front yard. Now they have some partners: a family of ducks and a pair of pygmy goats.
The ducks have a big cage on one side of the lawn, covered for shade, and a moveable fence to pen them in.
And within that pen, they make short work of the grass, clover, plantain and other low-growing plants that make up what we call a lawn.
On the other side of the yard, there’s another moveable fence, this one attached to a little house the boy built for two young pygmy goats who arrived a couple of weeks ago.
Once the ducks and goats have mown their areas, we move their fences and they start in somewhere else.
In the afternoons, the oxen wander both yards, hemmed in with a strand of electric wire, nibbling grass outside the enclosures, around the edges of the gardens, pretty much wherever they like.
It is not a perfect system, and certainly our yard is a little nontraditional. The ducks tend to pull out plants, leaving some patches of dirt. They dig holes and tromp down everything, and they are messy, leaving feathers and poop pretty much everywhere.
“Mom! The ducks are ruining the lawn!” my daughter said when she was home the first week of June.
Not to worry. Once we move their fence, the green stuff springs back and starts growing again.
“They’re just fertilizing,” my son tells his big sister.
If you are looking for professional lawn mowers, I would certainly recommend goats over ducks. They are small, neat and they nibble. It takes the two pygmies a week to cut their area before we have to move their fence and house, which was built on wooden runners for easy moving.
The oxen have their own systems. The big one bores easily, and tends to wander over to a pile of hay bales and take a taste of each. The littlest calf looks for the longest grass, then chomps and chews. His bigger brother moves back and forth between the other two, and occasionally breaks through the electric fence and tests out tasty bits in my flower garden.
We do have a ride-on lawn mower, but it is not actually working. We also have several reel mowers — the old fashioned push mowers with a spinning reel of blades. My son cleaned and oiled them in the spring. The blades are still fairly sharp and my husband is handy with a sharpener, so they’ll stay that way.
But reel mowers are tough to use if the grass is high or the lawn isn’t flat.
We have discovered that they are great for use after our mammal lawn crew is done with an area. Once we move the goats, running through their area with a reel mower to even things out is a piece of cake.
Maybe we can go all summer without using gas to mow our lawn. It’s certainly quieter this way.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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