Nebraska’s 700-head Mowing Machine: Everybody’s happy with Happy Goats Grazing Service
April 5, 2014
The old adage that goats are like potato chips is true for just about every goat owner, but at some point there is usually a limit to the fun.
Some hobby farms can only handle a herd of five or 10 without becoming overloaded, while larger dairies can keep more, but are still restricted by factors such as how many hands are available to help with the milking.
Michelle Wendell, owner of Happy Goats Grazing Service in Nebraska, found a way to keep all of her caprine friends, and they help keep her business in the black, without culling or sales.
Her almost 700 goats are her constant companions — and business partners.
Since 2006, Wendell has been driving her herd around in a semi truck to various job locations, where customers ranging from cattle ranchers to government entities pay her for the privilege of having goats clear their land.
In a modern take on the traditional goatherd's life, Wendell lives with her herd in the trailer she brings to each site, and closely manages their grazing for each client.
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Wendell's business all began when her family's farming operation was sold.
"The operation moved to a cattle operation in the Sandhills of Nebraska," she said. "The grass pastures had an abundance of brush, weeds, forbs, and forages that the cattle do not utilize. I grew up with sheep and knew that they would eat some of these other feeds and then heard a speaker talk about goats. I began some research on goats and knew I wanted to give them a try. I began with about 100 head of nannies, some portable electric mesh fence, and a half-trained border collie. I learned a lot the first couple months and saw that there was potential for the goats to be another enterprise on the ranch."
From those humble beginnings, Wendell's business steadily expanded.
"An opportunity came to bring my herd to Wyoming to do a targeted graze there in the summer, and we loaded up and went and enjoyed the experience," she said. "Then another opportunity came to be the grazers on a federal grant in the panhandle of Nebraska, grazing river drainage areas, and targeting Canada thistle in particular. I ramped up to 500 head and we went spring and fall for three years. It was fun and we had good success on areas that we repeat-grazed, but at first it was very hard to get landowners on board to participate. By the time we were on year three, we had more landowners that wanted to participate than there were days available."
Wendell said that during the first three years of establishing her goat grazing business, she also got involved with the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition, which had an interest in trying to support multi-species grazing projects.
"I worked on several sites with them, as well as some jobs that we turned up ourselves due to inter- est in what the goats could do," she said. "We also began to work with the Nebraska Department of Roads, grazing wetland mitigation sites."
Today, Wendell has some help keeping track of her talented herd.
"Currently, the operation consists of about 700 nannies that I run in conjunction with my daughter, Heather Strawder, and her husband, Cody," Wendell said. "The goats spend most of the winter in southwest Nebraska on their property. I had done the grazing alone until last summer, when I had some health issues. Heather and the grandkids came and helped me all summer, and it was wonderful."
So what's the typical grazing job like?
"We gather up the whole herd and take them to the sites we are working on semis," Wendell said. "The company has a fifth-wheel trailer that is our main 'office' and we live onsite with the goats while we are on a job. The goats are managed according to what the landowner's goals are, but the sites are very intensively grazed with high stock density for a short duration. Portable electrified mesh fence is put up every day, the whole herd is in one paddock, and paddocks are monitored to meet the goals of the graze. When a paddock is cleared, the goats are moved to the next paddock. Typically each paddock only lasts a few hours, sometimes a half a day. We use border collies to manage the goats during the moves and they are also on call if the goats ever escape the fence, which is extremely rare as they respect the electric fence. Much of our work is in wetland areas and water is available, but we also haul water if needed. We remain onsite until the land is cleared, then build a portable loadout and load everything up and leave. Our goats are very happy at their jobs, as all we want them to do is eat, and then eat some more. They are happy to oblige."
"We love being out in the beautiful areas we get to work in," Wendell said. "We love our goats, too, and enjoy having folks stop by to see what we are doing. The response to having the goats take care of the 'weeds' as opposed to using chemicals is always positive. We feel the benefits are many. The use of goats in these situations is more of a 'recycling' project. Goats take forages and use them as fuel, and then put what their bodies don't need back out on the earth as a beautiful soil amendment in the form of manure, which helps the
health and tilth of the land."
"Goats also render most weed seed unviable by their circular chewing motion and the way the forages are chewed several times in the cud," Wendell said. "Their hoof action breaks up surface crust and can also be used to incorporate seeding ahead of graze. Goats are nimble and self-propelled and can target areas that are hard to reach with any other method. Weeds are devoured, paddocks are opened up for other beneficial forages to get a foothold, with a nice layer of manure for fertility … that is how the paddock is left."
Wendell said her goal has always been to work with nature's abundance to create healthy soils, happy goats, the desired landscape, positive results for landowners — and to create a feeling of balance, harmony, and good energy in the areas grazed. The demand for Happy Goats Grazing Service demonstrates that others share her vision and philosophy, contributing to a successful business adventure with goats. ❖