Staring at Goats IV: Time + Specificity

[view of day 9 of goats on Belmont (above and below).  We are currently in day 15]

One of the questions I’ve been asked most while in the field with the goats is how long they are going to be there. This has turned out to be a hard question to answer with more accuracy than ‘until the vegetation isn’t‘, which in turn leads to more questions.  We initially thought it would take about a week for the task, but as we have arrived at the close of week two, we were obviously off in our predictions.

But when asked this question, I never sensed it to be coming from a perspective of looking for an end; rather it seemed obviously based on hopes that the goats would be there for a while longer.  For contrasting perspective, imagine if we had been running a lawn mower out here for two weeks…highly doubtful that neighbors and the community at large would construe that as a public amenity.

[scale:  the barely visible charcoal-grey goat in the upper right corner is about 2-2.5′ tall.  The faint diagonal lines in this and the top image are remnants from the wheels of the tractor mowers clearing the surface back in the spring]

Why were we off?  What does this say about efficiency?  Part of the  experiment here is to test skills in reading urban landscape; skills for guiding living processes in a dynamic biotic field in which the only nonliving things within it are the goats trailer (which some have thought I was living in), bits of rubbish and my camera.   Urban naturalists claim wisdom and answers always reside in the careful observation of details.  Thus a few observations…

The task at hand has been slightly extended by the unanticipated anthropogenic addition of outside food.  This occurs in two ways: some participants have taken to bringing their own food to the site for the goats, generously offering them their leftovers, dry cereal, Twizzlers, popcorn, vegetable scraps, carrots, apples, and other miscellaneous dietary supplements (although a nice sentiment, it’s probably not the best thing for the health of the goats, which subsequently are less inclined to eat their greens and browns in the field).   The rate of this phenomenon seems to be increasing the longer we are out there.  The second has to do with the unanticipated expansion of the confined field in question:  visitors are voluntarily pulling weeds from the outside edge of the fence and from the cracks in the surrounding sidewalks.  We unabashedly love and appreciate their assistance:

[remnant plant roots lodged in the chain link fence]

[settling in for the daily afternoon siesta]

The goats themselves exhibit an amazing repertoire of behaviors, moods and proclivities (constant entertainment really); some of which seem predictable.   For example, heat has a major effect on their appetite.  As we saw in the first couple days, in warm weather they slow down and don’t eat nearly as much.   As herding animals by instinct, they tend to stick together and form social subgroups within the herd.  In a short time its easy to tell which ones are fond of each other and which ones have issues.  The patterns of how they collectively move (the repeating cycles of foraging and resting) seems unpredictable and slightly random.

Although common knowledge says that goats will eat anything, they undeniably have specific preferences when it comes to vegetation.  They selectively graze rather than mow; covering the terrain many times over in the process of eating it down.  The field seems to offer a culinary menu similar to a stocked refrigerator or pantry.  There are those things that get eagerly consumed at a fast rate (in this case seasonally procured fresh green clover, grass and blooming flowers), followed by things that are less immediately appetizing – like desiccated seed stalks and thistles.  They’re edible, but not delicious.

This menu is affected by weather conditions and seasons.  As other contemporary research in herding/grazing practices has demonstrated (here and here), by simply modifying the timing of grazing to optimum specifics of local conditions, significant effects can be achieved.  The potentials for this particular situation are unknown, and a key question for us is when are the best two times of year to bring the goats to this site.

[Targeting the clover over the readily available Queen Ann’s Lace]

[steady rain on day 12 and 13.  Note the closely grazed field of clover in the foreground in contrast to the remaining flower stalks and dried grasses.  As the rain softened the dead vegetation, the goats subsequently started eating it more regularly]

We are intrigued by how more and more of these patterns, programs and biotic rhythms emerge (human and other) as the project continues.  The variables involved in the process confound, or rather supersede simple quantification and manipulation.   Yet observing these processes makes us better in understanding and applying them.  Likewise, its interesting how we keep trying to design machines and buildings to function more like organisms, while asking organisms to perform more like machines.  Do such role reversals help to dissolve the problemmatic nature – culture dichotomy?

This project has always had this productive tension between abstract industrial notions of time and those of living things, as played out in a near-perfect urban arena.  We seem to be tinkering in the vagaries of efficiency and how it’s defined, or how its bypassed altogether for a broader range of positive effects.  If we were to evaluate this project only by abstract time efficiency, it would fail.  But as we have programmatically observed, the introduction of goats is doing so much more than clearing vegetation.  Considered along a more holistic range of criteria, it’s arguably no longer of the same category, having morphed into something else.  As we enter our third week of being on this site (thanks in no small part to the owner of the property), at what point is it more accurate to define this maintenance regime as an interim, or temporary land use?   Seems we might already be there.

(Updated project Flickr set here)


  1. This is very neat. How many goats are there in the herd? It seems relatively few compared to the number usually turned out in San Francisco, where the strategy seems to be to saturate an area with goats for a few days and then remove them. Perhaps cost considerations come into play? I rather like the idea of a semi-permanent herd of goats being stationed in large vacant lots… maybe with a shed or trailer available for cover. Like this:

    Apparently there’s an outfit in SF. Who knew?

    A few years ago, someone had done that with his San Francisco junkyard. But he was forced to move them out.

  2. Our herd has varied during the project, averaging around 35-40 goats. As of yet we have not pushed beyond that.
    Have you checked out goatfinder? It lists goat rental companies by location across the nation. It currently has listings for 13 different states.

  3. Madhu Pandji · ·

    Ever read ‘Goatwalking’ by Jim Corbett? Highly recommended for goat-oriented philosophical types.

  4. No, I hadn’t heard of it. The author seems to have lived a very interesting life. Thanks for the reference.

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