Christmas is over: The presents have been opened, the sweets consumed and the tree that once fairly embodied the holiday spirit is shedding needles rapidly.
But what happens after the firs and white pines are kicked to the curb? In one village, the answer is goats.
“They’ll strip these right down to the wood,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth as her herd of 20 cashmere goats nipped away at a handful of old Christmas trees with surprising dexterity.
Sister Mary Elizabeth tends to the small goat operation at the Community of St. Mary’s south of Greenwich. Every year, right around New Year’s, she starts tossing old Christmas trees from the village into the goat pen. Every year, the goats go at the trees like a few dozen sets of hedge clippers.
She stood among the inquisitive animals in her full habit plus winter jacket and heavy boots Monday afternoon, talking up the dietary benefits of Christmas trees.
“There just isn’t a whole lot of greenery to be had this time of year,” she said. “I guess they also taste different than the usual dry hay.”
Most people wouldn’t likely classify dead pine trees in the greens category, right in there with broccoli and lettuce, but for goats, pretty much everything is fair game.
“God designed them to survive in the mountains above the tree line,” she said. “So they can get nutrients out of twigs and bark, things most other animals couldn’t digest.”
As it turns out, cashmere goats given a steady diet of finer foods like alfalfa could actually starve from the lack of tree roughage.
A decade ago, when the sisters were first raising goats, they experimented with filling the winter roughage gap with their own old Christmas trees.
“We didn’t really know anything about raising animals,” she said, “but we figured, it’s in books.”
As luck would have it, the goats loved Christmas trees, so much, in fact, that Sister Mary Elizabeth now has to borrow a truck and go out trolling for trees with Sister Mary Lucia.
Sister Mary Lucia helps with the goats when she’s not in the kitchen and doesn’t mind the seasonal greenery-grabbing trips to town.
“It’s quite a picture,” she said, “a couple of us in full habits riding around in an old pickup, loading up trees before the garbage trucks arrive.”
Sister Mary Elizabeth laughed at the mental image of nuns snatching up dead trees but said a fellow shoveling out his driveway had seen them nab his tree that morning and didn’t seem to think anything was out of the ordinary.
Every year, the goats will chomp through a few dozen trees before the snow melts. The herd is separated into groups for tree-eating: A few dejected and lonely males have to eat in their own pen, for obvious population-control reasons.
The oldest female, a large-eyed 8-year-old named Matty, also gets her own tree, not because of her age but because she was born without the usual goat horns.
“Goats beat up on each other,” Sister Mary Elizabeth said. “Usually hornless goats can’t survive in a horned goat herd, but she actually does pretty well.”
Even so, with the competition generated by pine greens, Matty wouldn’t stand a chance without her own pen.
The eco-consciences of Greenwich residents are satisfied after the holidays thanks to the sisters’ goats, but not all Christmas trees can be used as animal roughage.
Many thousands of trees are cut every year, too many for the goats to consume before spring. Even so, most of those trees are recycled in a productive manner.
The ones collected by the Montgomery-Otsego-Schoharie Solid Waste Management Authority are sent to a fellow named Robert Rolle in Fultonville, who grinds them up into chips for dog beds. The city of Schenectady sends them along with other clean wood products to compost facilities in Rotterdam and Scotia, while trees taken from Niskayuna curbs are chipped in-house for use on the municipal disk golf course.
Very few Christmas trees in the Capital Region find their way into landfills, even if they’re not enjoyed by goats like Matty.
“When recycling becomes a treat, everybody wins,” Sister Mary Lucia said, “including the goats.”