On a sunny day in the suburbs of south San Jose, you can spot a most unusual scene: a herd of gobbling goats devouring all leafy greens in sight along Canoas Creek. No, it’s not a runaway herd on the loose; it’s a group of “hired goats” performing vegetation management for the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
Since mid-March, hordes of goats have been hard at work munching on weeds and wild grasses growing along Canoas Creek in south San Jose, and Lions Creek and the North and South Morey channels in Gilroy. This unique effort is part of the water district’s vegetation management program for weed abatement and fire risk reduction along channels. Almost 500 goats will “work” for 6 weeks to consume vegetation on 24.57 acres. A goatherd and his trusty Great Pyrenees dog will monitor the goats at work while camping at the work locations. The specific work areas are fenced, protecting the goats from encountering poisonous plants and residents’ yards.
Using goats to perform weed abatement is a more environmentally friendly alternative to spraying herbicides and mowing. Our vegetation program has several guidelines in place and must comply with state and regulatory agencies’ permit requirements, which means sometimes we are not allowed to spray herbicides in certain areas.
Having goats close to homes may be a slightly unsettling thought, but the goats are less disruptive than a truck spraying herbicides or a crew with weed trimmers. Goats are quiet munchers and silent at night. They are also quite popular. Water district crews on site have seen firsthand the excitement among neighbors. Individuals and families come out in groups to greet the goats from afar and take selfies. Curious residents peek over their fences and sneak the goats healthy snacks like carrots and apples. And these show stopping goats know how to stop traffic.
But beyond being a novelty in the neighborhood, the goats are an advantageous element of the water district’s vegetation management and stream maintenance program. To perform stream maintenance along specific creek sites, the water district must apply for permits from various state and regulatory agencies. To meet certain permit requirements for fire code compliance, we have to remove dry weeds and have the method of removal approved by these agencies on an annual basis. However, goat grazing was approved for vegetation management under our stream maintenance ten year permit, so an annual permit isn’t required.
Although not the first time the water district has used these hungry critters, it is the first time they are used in densely populated neighborhoods. Back in 2006, goats were used for similar reasons along district-owned portions of Coyote Creek and on water treatment plant facilities. The cost of goat grazing and traditional weed mowing is very close.
While goat grazing spares the air from exhaust from gas engine weed trimmers, one thing it contributes is fertilizer, or yes, poop. Even though a goat herding company provides 24-hour care of the livestock and water district crews occasionally clean up after them, the extra fertilizer promotes vegetation growth, which can be counterproductive to the unique strategy.
The water district is weighing the pros and cons of goat grazing and exploring the possibility of expanding the effort for vegetation management projects, as well as other options to minimize the use of herbicides.