By LEAH MERRALL
Arizona Sonora News
Instead of waking up in the morning to the blare of a leaf blower, lawn mower or chainsaw on landscape duty, why not wake up in peace and look out the window to see a team of livestock gently grazing your property and doing the exact same job?
You might laugh, but in fact livestock are used for landscaping purposes all over the country. And why not? Animals are less noisy (well, usually) and more environmentally friendly. And besides, you can hire them for a spell and don’t have to provide maintenance or store them in your garage.
An entire network of prescribed grazing services exists at websites like livestockforlandscapes.com, which catalogues an A to Z list, state by state (plus Canada) of providers of prescribed grazing services.
You can rent goats, cattle, sheep, horses or donkeys. But just like deciding to hire any landscaping crew, you might want to know the pros and cons of the services they can provide.
Go get yourself a goat
Goats are arguably the most versatile of the livestock gardeners. Dan Faulkner, livestock extension specialist and professor of animal nutrition at the University of Arizona, said that goats are browsers, which means that they eat shrubs and leaves and sometimes grass.
Because many people’s landscaping needs stem from the desire to trim back shrubs and rake up leaves, goats are a solid option. However, they tend to be a little pesky.
Kathy Voth, who has been working with using livestock as a land management tool for over a decade and runs the Livestock for Landscapes website, has had to work to find ways to overcome the often inconveniently headstrong, but indisputably smart behavior of goats.
“I can spend eight hours building a fence for my goats, and sometimes within an hour they’ll jump out,” she said. “And then with cows, it takes me an hour to build them a fence because all you have to do it lay down one electric wire and they’ll stay inside for days.”
After working with 130 goats from 1997 to 2002 to conduct her research, Voth produced a CD handbook that people can purchase on her website. It explains things like how to properly build a fence for your goat, and includes a calculator to determine how many goats you would need to effectively graze your land.
Although Voth might be considered a goat expert, she conceded that she does not own any goats at the moment. She left them behind when she moved to Tucson.
“I haven’t really run goats since because it’s a really time intensive thing,” she said. “Many people end up living with their goats and I decided that I liked my husband better than goats.”
Donkeys can do it too
Despite their reputation for stubbornness, donkeys are said to be easier to control than goats, and they come in various shapes and sizes. In fact, many people prefer miniature donkeys for their landscaping needs
because they are closer to the ground and hence can be more efficient gardeners.
Donkeys are grass eaters, according to Faulkner. That makes them effective lawnmowers — and weed whackers.
Nicole Harrington, who lives in east Tucson, purchased two miniature donkeys a year ago to help manage her one-acre property, since her lawnmower seemed to break and require an expensive fix every time she used it. Plus, she got tired of raking. So, she went online and is now the proud owner of miniature donkeys Burrito and Tommy.
“One of my larger dogs is the same size as my smallest miniature donkey,” Harrington said. “They’re just absolutely precious.”
However, Harrington was faced with a dilemma this summer when all of the mesquite trees in her yard dropped their beans and the donkeys started eating them. While the beans are not poisonous to them, they’re full of sugar and are unhealthy for the donkeys to eat too many. Also, though donkeys do not really colic like horses do, but their potential upset stomachs caused by overconsumption of the beans can lead to detrimental health issues.
“Obviously, overconsumption of anything can cause an animal problems,” Faulkner said.
Mooove over for cows
Cows are, as anyone can see, bigger than goats and miniature donkeys, which means that while they are able to eat more, they produce more waste, so the clean-up is a bit more extensive and, shall we say, challenging.
Like donkeys and horses, cows are primarily grass eaters. However, beware. In the words of Faulkner, “Cows will eat about anything.”
There is a slight caveat in this, in that cows will sometimes avoid certain weeds because they are not palatable, Faulkner said. Voth also discovered that this was an issue, so she developed a method to get cows to eat weeds, which she explains in her CD handbook. She will also go to people’s properties and help them with the process.
Cows are also easier to manage than goats and even donkeys. Harrington said that in the beginning, she would have to rope her donkeys to get them into their pens because they would run all over the place. Now they respond to being called by name, but it is less likely that cows would ever run like that in the first place. Additionally, cows are considerably more understanding of fence boundaries than goats.
“I’ve actually told people that if you’re doing heavy brush removal, cows would be great because they have big bodies, they can be fenced in, and they eat a lot more than goats can eat,” Voth said.
Horses and sheep are also landscaping candidates. A Huffington Post article from this summer documented the use of sheep in landscaping a park in Montreal. Faulkner said that sheep are browsers, like goats. Their primary use for landscaping would also be to trim back shrubs and clear out leaves.
Horses are more like donkeys and, in that they will mostly only eat grass. However, horses will avoid weeds, according to Harrington.
Here in southern Arizona, where the weather can be unforgiving, a team of human landscapers usually will do their work in the early hours of the morning, possibly disturbing your precious sleep.
So, next time you wake up in the morning to the blaring of a leaf blower outside your window, consider hiring an animal to do your yard work instead. It’s quieter, greener, and potentially more cost-effective. And for the animals, it’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Download high resolution images here.
Leah Merrall is a junior studying journalism and communication, and plans to be a news reporter after college. She was born in Toronto, Canada, and lived the other half of her life in Scottsdale, Ariz., and enjoys reading and traveling.