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North Hills Monthly

Steel City Grazers Make Short Work of Problem Plants

Feb 26, 2016 05:39PM ● By Vanessa Orr
It’s almost growing season, and while that’s fine when you’re planting flowers and vegetables, there are a lot of unwanted plants—think poison ivy and Japanese knotweed—that are getting ready to take over your yard as well.

It can be especially difficult when these unwelcome plants are located in difficult areas to mow, such as on steep hillsides and in tight spaces. But now there’s a way that you can get rid of these plants easily in an environmentally friendly way—just call the Steel City Grazers.

The grazer crew—made up of 10 goats and a miniature donkey named Hobo—is owned by Carrie Pavlik and Doug Placais, who started their business in 2015. “We originally had two Nigerian dwarf goats that we bred, and sold the offspring to people who wanted goats for milk,” explained Pavlik. “Then, a couple of years ago, Tree Pittsburgh brought in a goat company from out-of-state on a pilot project for a day, and a number of groups, including Tree Pittsburgh and Grow Pittsburgh, thought that it would be great if someone in Pittsburgh started doing this. We’d heard about companies in other parts of the country doing it, so we decided to start a business.”

There are numerous advantages to employing this four-legged clean-up crew. “Goats love the nasty stuff; they love poison ivy, blackberry thorns, Mile-A-Minute, wild grapes, porcelain berry, Japanese knotweed—plants that are difficult to deal with,” said Pavlik. “Problem plants seem to be their favorite; they like weedy things more than grass.”

Goats are very good for working on steep slopes, and in tight spaces where it’s hard to use machinery. “Goats are an environmentally safe alternative, because you don’t have to use fossil fuels to run machinery, or use pesticides or herbicides,” said Pavlik. “This is especially important if you’re working around waterways, or in environmentally sensitive areas.”

Goats also reduce the seed bank so that there’s less regrowth. “When you just chop down a plant, the seeds go down into the soil and resprout,” said Pavlik. “Goats eat the seeds and when they come out the other end, they are not viable. And they leave behind free fertilizer!”

According to a five-star client review on Yelp, the goats’ cuteness factor doesn’t hurt either. “Carrie and Doug and the crew of goats (and Hobo the miniature donkey) did a great job on clearing our overgrown hillside!” it reads. “Not only is this service very reasonably priced, it is safer (no poison ivy!) and way, way, way more fun than using humans to do this work.

“My hillside is quite steep and extremely overgrown with weeds and brush and vines,” the review continues. “The first few days I could barely even see the goats except for the shaking of bushes and trees as they did their work. As the job progressed, I was able to sit outside in the late afternoon and watch them work and play!”

In its first year, Steel City Grazers has served a variety of customers, from private homeowners with overgrown backyards to the Carrie Furnaces/Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Pavlik says that the service makes sense for anyone who would hire a landscaping company, including nonprofits, neighborhood associations, parks, utility companies and individual homeowners. “It’s good PR to hire goats, not to mention that a lot of times they bring the community together,” she said. “One of the homeowners who we worked for said that they’d never met their neighbors before, but they did when everyone came to see the goats.”

The minimum area required to hire the goats is a quarter-acre, and estimates are given based on the size of the site and how long it will take the grazers to complete it. A human field crew will come out and take measurements, provide an estimate and then schedule a time to come out and build a temporary electric fence designed to keep predators out and the goats in. A temporary shelter and watering equipment will also be constructed on-site.

“The next day, we bring in the goats, and they go straight to work,” said Pavlik. “They’re always excited to eat. They’ll stay there until the job is done, which depends on the type and thickness of vegetation.” The goats are checked on every day, and Hobo, their livestock guardian, is there to chase off dogs or other nuisances that get too curious.

As for the cost, Pavlik says, “Some clients say that it is cheaper than hiring a landscaper, but it depends, really. If it’s a huge area where you can get machinery in like a brush hog, that option might be cheaper. But if it’s a smaller or medium-sized job where it is difficult to use machinery, goats may be a better option.”

And they are definitely more entertaining. “People are excited to see goats; they’re just lovable creatures,” said Pavlik.