Creekside Goat Company based in Magrath hopes there is room in southern Alberta’s prairie landscape for the insatiable little herbivores with a taste for invasive species like leafy spurge and wormwood.
“God made an animal that will eat all the things that nothing else wants to eat,” says Creekside Goat Company owner Robert Finck. “Goats evolved in Africa and other places that were more marginal landscapes. They are able to eat and live on ground that has less plant production.
“They are a browser, not a grazer; so they will pick small leaves from hawthorns to chokecherry bushes and they will eat anything from thistles down to blackberry bushes. They can eat around anything with thorns.
“They are actually kind of picky,” he adds, “but once you teach them to eat these things like leafy spurge they will go in and start looking for them.”
Finck was born in Montana and spent the last 25 years working as a rangeland management expert on various ranches and for different universities south of the border before deciding to move with his family to Canada to begin starting to slice out a little piece of prairie heaven for themselves. Finck worked on invasive species management and fire management extensively, and, for him, goats are just one weapon in the arsenal.
“For range management you use whatever tools are available— that can be cattle, sheep, goats, herbicide, ploughing and fire,” he confirms. “When you are looking at what is best for the landscape there are a lot of tools in your belt that can do that. Goats are just one tool. A lot of ranches where I managed we used both. We put the cows in where we could for fire breaks and fire management, and the areas they didn’t hit we planned to use the goats to hit them.
“If one animal only eats one thing then that other thing takes off; so if you have different animals that eat different things then it makes for even grazing.”
Finck saw an under-served market in Canada, which ultimately prompted him to put together his goat grazing business in 2018.
“Basically, we liked Canada and wanted to stay,” he recalls. “When we left our last ranch, we decided it was time to go out on our own. I thought: ‘What do I know?’ And that’s ranching and grazing, but there was no way I could buy my own ranch and pay for cows and everything. With goats, you can run eight months a year on the job for feed; so you don’t need a big land base. There is an unlimited amount of leafy spurge out there that was a problem— so I saw an opportunity. I saw there were people willing to pay for what we do— and I thought it was a heckuva business opportunity. That’s why we decided to invest in goats.”
Since last October Creekside Goat Company has won targeted grazing contracts with the City of Lethbridge for invasive species management and fire management. The company has also won a targeted grazing contract in Calgary, and Finck is actively exploring other opportunities in other cities and municipalities in Alberta. He also wants to explore opportunities with irrigation districts. He plans to double his herd size by next year from the current 500 animals he runs.
Ideally, Finck wants to eventually break in with local ranches that may want to use alternatives to chemical spraying for the leafy spurge, wormwood and other weed problems; especially along creekside areas where such spraying isn’t allowed by law, and in other hard to reach areas where cows and sheep can’t go. But Finck admits there is still somewhat of a perception problem he has to overcome with some ranch owners.
“Many ranchers are afraid of the goats; that we will eat their feed source if we come on. Once they see the goats eat the spurge and don’t eat the grass then it’s not a fear for us to come in behind their cows and ahead of their cows to take care of their weeds.”
The way Finck turns his goats into leafy spurge or other invasive plant eating machines is he pens them in a thick patch of whatever invasive is being targeted, usually leafy spurge, and gets the goats used to eating that plant. Once they get a taste for it, they don’t want anything else, Finck says. In this way, Finck’s animals take care of a problem for the landowner, his goats get a steady feed source no other animal is really equipped to eat throughout the summer and fall months, and he sells the kids just before winter into a good goat meat market, creating a balanced, year-round revenue stream for his business.
Finck says some ranchers who talk to him think he should be working his goats on their land for the price of the feed, but that does not account for his time and effort and having paid staff out all night and day with the animals, he states.
“We’re with our animals 24/7 when we are out on these jobs,” he says. “Your summers are camping all summer.”
Finck says he has also talked to ranchers who tried to have their own goat herds in the past, but found it was a lot easier to hire a freelance herder to come in twice a year instead to deal with hard to spray or manage areas choked with invasive weeds.
“If your fences don’t hold water, they don’t hold goats,” he says.“If you walk away from them and leave them, they will get out, and they will travel and travel and travel. The reason you are always with them is to keep them in. Some people want to get goats and do it, but it is kind of a pain. At what point do you get big enough so you can justify somebody with them all the time? I think it is easier to hire a crew to come in and do that.”
In wilder areas where they can’t use electric fencing and penning, Finck’s crews use horses and herding dogs to keep the goats safe and moving through the areas they need to move through. A good dog is your most essential tool, Finck says.
“You have to have a strong dog because the goats don’t move away like sheep do,” he explains. “They will fight with the dogs all the time when they are moving. They are headstrong. They want to go where they want to go and you have to have pretty good dogs. These goats do a great job, but they are also a lot of work.”
Working in partnership with ranch owners and municipal governments, Finck has seen how rangelands can integrate this kind of goat control tool to help with invasives and fire prevention in his work south of the border. He also has decades of expertise to draw on when posed with unique challenges.
“I have seen this work in California, Montana and other places,” he states. “I have friends who run large numbers of goats and have been successful. I also knew it wasn’t very big in Canada, and I thought it was a perfect opportunity to start a business here.”
Finck is optimistic about the future of goats and rangeland management here in southern Alberta, and he hopes to ensure his family has a business which can thrive well into the future.
“We’re still living an ag life,” he says, “and we don’t have to buy millions of dollars of land to try to make an ag living.”