September 4, 2015
Last year, Deirdre Price moved from her urban, super-dense Pittsburgh northside neighborhood to a slightly suburban one in the South Hills. Like a lot of people, she moved for the yard. In Mexican War Streets, she had a postage stamp-sized lot. In Brookline, she’s basically got the urban equivalent of a back forty. But calling Price's new backyard a "yard" might be just a little bit generous.
“So we basically got five lots—three and a half are a hillside that is completely covered with bramble and brush and poison ivy,” Price says, laughing.
That’s not an uncommon thing in Pittsburgh. In a lot of neighborhoods, your backyard might literally be the side of a mountain. But Price is intent on making something of her bramble patch. And to help clear it, she called on a special breed of landscaper. One that doesn’t mind the rough terrain. They’ll even work from sun-up to well past sundown—into the night, even, if there’s a full moon. And she doesn’t even have to worry about being polite and offering the crew lunch during work breaks because, well, lunch is sort of baked into the deal. The landscaping crew—a herd of nine goats now munching through the wilderness of her back yard—is doing exactly what it's supposed to do.
“They don’t care about itchy or thorny plants like poison ivy or blackberry or other thorns,” says Carrie Pavlik, co-owner of Steel City Grazers, a new goat landscaping business in Pittsburgh. “They actually really like those plants. Goats can also go places human landscapers and machinery can’t, like steep slopes or tight spaces.”
In other words, places like Deirdre Price’s backyard. And a few days into a land-clearing stint which Carrie says will probably take about two weeks, the goats are already making a dent. Big stretches of the back yard which were pretty much unnavigable are now easy to walk through—minus the trail of goat poop. But even that collateral damage is considered a free perk.
“So the goat poop, it’s very small, it’s dry. It’s just great fertilizer so we leave it,” Carrie says.
The goat poop—maybe. But the donkey poop—that, Carrie says she and Doug, her husband/Steel City Grazers co-owner, will have to go back through and pick up. The donkey—Hobo—he’s not out here to eat poison ivy. He’s actually here to watch over the herd. Hobo is a guard donkey. Or, as Carrie calls him more formally, a “livestock guardian.” If a dog or coyote breeches the electric fence strung around Deirdre’s property to keep the goats in and predators out, Hobo will chase it off.
“You can also use llamas,” Carrie says, laughing. “But donkeys are easier to train on the electric fence.”
Goats aren’t suited for every job. Doug says they’re perfect for lots that fall in between what a homeowner could tackle with hand tools and what you might want to call in a human landscaping crew to tackle with heavy equipment.
But opting for goats over heavy machinery has some unique benefits. For one, goats are a lot quieter and don’t disturb neighbors—despite what you may have seen in those screaming goat YouTube videos. (Carrie and Doug both think those are fake, and many of them feature sheep, not goats, anyway.) And goats are also a greener choice. They don’t run on gasoline and can quickly chew through stubborn plants that would usually require spraying herbicides. Goats are so tenacious, in fact, they even get at roots and seeds, so unwanted plants don’t come back.
Money-wise, the goats aren’t cheap. Deirdre is renting Carrie and Doug’s for two weeks, for $10 a day per goat, plus another $10 a day for Hobo the donkey, plus a setup fee for the electric fence. All told, it’s going to cost her about $1500. That’s pricier than hiring a traditional landscaping company, but about on par with other goat grazing businesses. Deirdre admits she didn’t even call around to get quotes from other landscapers. She wanted the goats out here mostly because they were cool. And the neighborhood apparently thinks so too. In fact, Bob Steele, one of Deidre’s neighbors—he’s been watching the goats from next door and says his lawn is begging for a small herd.
“I stare longingly over the fence, saying, 'I wish they were mine.' I’m hoping. You’re talking to the person who has to mow three-quarters of an acre, and it’s on a hill.”
Bob could get his wish and get some help with that hill. The city of Pittsburgh recently revised its livestock ordinance to clear the way for homeowners to keep goats, much like people keep backyard chickens now. According to Deirdre, a neighbor kid down the street has already convinced his parents the time for goats has come. And for Carrie and Doug, business is booming. They’re already booked up through the fall and hope to double the size of their landscaping herd and hire an employee next year. There are certainly enough overgrown hillsides in Pittsburgh to keep the herd busy for a while.
To find out more about Steel City Grazers, check out Carrie and Doug's website: www.steelcitygrazers.com.