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Brian Knox

Innovative Maryland forester uses goats to remove invasive plants

By Glenn E. Rosenholm

Maryland-based forester and consultant Brian Knox employs an innovative commercial technique to remove invasive plant vegetation: he uses goats.

In simple terms, he’ll load his herd of goats onto a trailer and haul them out to a designated site. After setting up an electric fence around the area to be grazed, he’ll turn them loose, and they’ll do the rest.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, though.

The Eco-Goats founder said the business venture started out as an accident.

“We had a stewardship plan for an oral surgeon with a 50-acre tract and 50 goats,” he said. ”He bought the goats for one reason, not grazing. He had multiflora rose on his property, so we tried the goats on that, and it worked.”

“We did some research, and I talked with Senior Extension Associate Peter Smallidge at Cornell University in New York. They were using a small herd of meat goats to graze beech saplings,” Knox said.

“There are many grazers [grazing companies] on the West Coast,” he added, “but only five of us on the East Coast. There are very few people doing it,” he added.

Knox and the surgeon decided to go into business together. They’d use the forester’s knowledge and the goats’ naturally big appetites to remove invasive plant vegetation.

“I was already doing a lot of invasive species work with my consulting firm, Sustainable Resource Management, Inc. Using the goats became another tool in our toolbox,” he said.

“We just finished up our sixth season,” he said. “And it’s been busy every year.”

Starting out wasn’t easy though, he said, and his business continues to develop.

“I knew nothing about goats 6 years ago. There was a steep learning curve when we first started. It took a while to finesse it. I’m still learning stuff.” The pace of business picked up soon after, though.

“Next, we did a removal of bittersweet for another client of mine. Later, the county discovered they had poison ivy, and they gave us a call. Then the press got ahold of the story, and it took off from there,” he added.

Knox said he keeps the goats on the road for most of the summer. The oral surgeon gets them the other months. They share joint custody of the animals.

He said the goats are very broad spectrum eaters, but there are some plants they won’t eat. “They don’t like pawpaw, Jack-in-the-pulpit, anything in the milkweed family, goldenrod, and wingstem.”

“They’ll work around those and eat the remaining plants,” he added. “They’ll pick the honeysuckle, poison ivy, and leave the other stuff. They like oak and cherry as much as they’ll like any of the invasive species, including bittersweet and roses.”

Knox said the goats are not trained to eat one species or another. It just comes naturally.

“If I could train them, I would. I don’t think you could train a goat to eat just one species. It’s just the independence of a goat,” he added.

Working with goats poses challenges, he said. “They’re incredibly intelligent and they remember. I have a few goats that are problematic that I don’t use anymore. Jumping, for instance, is not acceptable at all. Every goat I have is capable of jumping a 5-foot fence. I have to keep them focused on the electric fence. It’s a psychological factor. They seem to teach each other about the electric fence.”

He said the goats have worked for a wide range of customers in a variety of situations.

“We’ve done some residential waterfront areas, and some schools and municipalities. We just finished up the second round in Philadelphia for a cemetery. They don’t want any herbicides. They have a steep slope that we’ve been grazing. They’ve got Japanese knotweed, mile-a-minute, and Japanese hops there.”

He said his background in forestry has made a big difference in growing a successful business.

“Here in Maryland, it’s real helpful to have a forestry background. As a professional forester, I can write a forest stewardship or vegetation management plan.”

Knox said someone can do just as much damage with a goat as with something else. “Coming from a sustainable forestry background, I have to decide if goats are the right tool for this job.”

He has had a long history in forestry and has worked with the U.S. Forest Service in the past.

“I spent 20+ years in the forest industry as a procurement manager. With the Forest Service I did a couple different grants around value recovery for loggers, to help them recoup as much value as they could from the stems that they cut. The fourth grant was an urban value recovery to get value from urban canopy trees.”

Knox and his goats work within a 3-hour radius of Annapolis, MD, going as far away as Virginia, District of Columbia, and Philadelphia. He is limited only by his livestock’s ability to travel. “The goats don’t like traveling more than 2 ½ to 3 hours,” he added.

He said the area where he operates presents plenty of business opportunities for his line of work.

“Maryland has a lot of forest edge, where the forest meets the open areas. We have lots of light getting in, and many places have a vegetation problem. You have a lot of light stimulating growth, and most of that growth is not desirable species,” he added.

Knox said there are many factors to consider when looking at a prospective job site.

“There are some things that are toxic to goats. I have to look at the vegetation ahead of time,” he said. “I talk people out of using goats a lot, such as customers with a small site, say under a quarter acre. It’s just too short a time and not worth it. Where we have a lot of desirable residual vegetation is another place that would not work.”

“The best place for a goat,” he added, “is where you don’t have any vegetation you want to save.”

When asked about some of the advantages of using goats over herbicides he replied:

“Goats are like herbicides with legs. If you’re over water, goats are certainly a green smiley face and there are no residual issues in the soil.”

“Most of our invasive plant species will produce a lot of seed, some early on and some years later. If you ‘nuke’ the site with herbicide, you’ll deal with seeds later on.”

“Goats eat the seeds along with the plants,” he added. “Their mouth shape helps them to digest and remove the seeds from the seed bank. A goat can get to places that people and machinery can’t. Where there are steep slopes, rocks, and downed woody debris, they’re unmatched.”

He then listed some of the disadvantages of using goats.

“They’re more expensive in most cases. There is no ‘one shot and done’ vegetation control. You’ll have to deal with it again. If you have access, mechanical and chemical treatments are often less expensive. Other methods are sometimes faster. A small easy site is not one for goats. In areas chemically treated in the past I choose not to bring goats there.”

He has trained other people in how to get started in the business. “I do some consulting. If someone is far enough away I will share information with them and help them get started. I turned someone down, though, who wanted to operate too close to me.”

The goat business is not for everyone, he said. “Lots of people are interested, but when they find out how much work it is, they find something else to do. It’s certainly not for the money that I do it. That’s the truth,” he added.

Looking back on his past 6 years in the goat invasive plant removal business, Knox said, “It just kind of happened. Rich [the oral surgeon] had the goats, and it worked. I got swept up in the novelty of it. It’s about the best physical workout you can get.”

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