SALT LAKE CITY — One lazy summer afternoon on Marmalade Hill, a herd of 50 goats was hard at work devouring overgrown vegetation from the hillside behind Washington Elementary School.
The small herd from 4 Leaf Ranch in Kamas is a green alternative for eliminating cheat grass and other plants that have overtaken the hillside.
"They're very good employees. They're very good at what they do. It's a natural approach to dealing with this without using any kind of harsh chemicals of any kind. This is the more natural approach to taking care of this overgrown vegetation. I think it's in their DNA. They know how to do this better than all of us," said Ricardo Zubiate, assistant director of facility services for the Salt Lake City School District.
This is the third year that the school district has contracted with 4 Leaf Ranch to perform the service. Ordinarily, the ranch brings 100 to 200 goats to handle the job but due to other commitments, only 50 goats were available, said 4 Leaf Ranch owner Greg Cover.
Because of the smaller herd, the goats were scheduled to spend a full week at the school tidying up the yard. A ranch hand tends the goats throughout the contract period, moving electric fences to confine the herd in specific areas to speed up the grazing and also to ensure none escape.
"That one right there is an escape artist," said Zubiate.
Not only is using goats "ecofriendly," Cover said, he charges less for the services of the goat herd than the district has spent hiring crews to mow and remove vegetation by hand.
This job cost is about $3,000 compared to $8,000 or higher for other removal methods, Zubiate said.
"Actually, it is a pretty steep hillside. By the time you get humans and equipment in there, you cause a lot of erosion where the goats naturally are from rocky, hilly environment and used to that and they don't cause the erosion. They make sure not to eat down too much. They don't pull the roots out like sheep do," Cover said.
The ranch's biggest competition are "the spray guys. We're an eighth of the cost of spraying. We're ecofriendly. We're not killing bees. We're not killing birds. There's no potential for poisons around humans and our pets and stuff. That's a school facility so they don't want to be spraying poisons around the kids," he said.
A good size herd of goats can clear an acre a day, Cover said.
4 Leaf Ranch has also handled jobs for Granite School District and been hired to thin vegetation along Legacy Highway, at Willard Bay, in Lambs Canyon and at Camp Williams.
"From my research, we're the only legit goat business doing what we're doing. We're fully licensed, insured and registered with the state," he said.
Zubiate said the Salt Lake City School District is a repeat customer because "each time they come in, they're very successful in what they do."
"We like goats," he said.