Goats have a four-compartment stomach, so they can gobble up problematic plants without complaint.
Writer: James Augustus Baggett
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
On a muggy August afternoon, Lauren Coulson and her husband, Ryan, drove their pickup truck and trailer full of two dozen bleating goats from their farm near Perry and backed them into my driveway in the Waterbury neighborhood. The goats were on a mission: to clear my backyard of noxious weeds, especially poison ivy.
The Coulsons are members of Goats on the Go, a network of goat-grazing affiliates across the country, and they hire out their herd for targeted grazing in Central Iowa. And the goats mean business: They removed all the poison ivy and other problematic plants from my wooded yard after just 24 hours of grazing.
But did I mention how adorable they are? My friends and neighbors came over to watch them work.
Grazing goats take care of overgrown weeds and thickets without the use of harmful chemicals — while leaving behind their own organic fertilizer. They aren’t trained to eat specific invasive plants, but their taste buds favor honeysuckle, lamb’s quarter, ragweed, thistle, pokeweed and even poison ivy. They actually prefer weeds to grass, and each animal eats up to 10 pounds of vegetation every day.
By controlling competing vegetation at critical times, targeted grazing can enhance habitat restoration. It’s also a cost-effective alternative where other options aren’t feasible, specifically on landscapes that are too steep, rocky or remote to mow or spray, or in urban spaces where burning isn’t allowed.
The Coulsons operate their business from Ryan’s father’s farm in Rippey. They started with four Boer goats — a South African meat breed — and planned to sell off the kids to make some extra income. But “it turned out that they were incredibly loving and full of unique, quirky personalities,” Lauren said. “We couldn’t bring ourselves to sell them.”
So what started with a handful of goats has multiplied. With additional purchases and offspring, the herd totals around 70 and includes a variety of meat and dairy breeds, including Boer, Spanish, Kiko (New Zealand), Oberhasli (American), Saanen (Swiss) and many mixes of all of the above. With such a large herd, the Coulsons decided the goats needed a job, so they reached out to Goats on the Go, which is based in Ames. The Coulsons helped a woman whose goats managed the territory and eventually took over when she discontinued her contract in 2022.
Here’s how it works: When a landowner wants to remove weeds or brush, they contact Goats on the Go, which schedules a visit and dispatches a herd in their neck of the woods. The Coulsons transport their goats and install temporary electric fencing around the area to be cleared, before releasing 30 to 40 goats at the site for one or two days, depending on the size of the targeted area. The average cost for their services is about $1,000 per acre, but that varies with each situation.
“We’ve been so lucky to have such great customers. They’re what make this job so fun,” Lauren said. “There have been clients who have movie nights outside with the goats. Some people give the goats different names based on their characteristics, people have played the guitar for them, taken drone and time-lapse videos, and silly pictures. So the goats really have two jobs: one is to clear the problem vegetation, and the other is to provide education about goats.”
Meet the Goats
Ryan Coulson described a few of the herd’s standouts.
Copper is vocal when she sees you coming and loves belly rubs.
Lady likes to sit like a dog and receive belly scratches.
Martha loves her scratches, too, but plays dead when it’s time to be moved.
Richard (pictured above) walks on a dog leash and will follow you anywhere until it’s time to get on the trailer.
Snow White is the leader and very cooperative.
Sparkles thinks she’s too pretty to be petted but loves talking to you.