Their eyes are otherworldly. Their individual demeanors lean toward the abrupt and comical, with shades of lethargy and boredom when just standing around. Their babies might be the cutest creatures on the planet (admittedly a personal bias of this writer), and they’re entertaining and helpful and edible in so many ways. We’re talking about goats: members of the family Bovidae, closely related to sheep. One of the oldest domesticated species, goats have been used for milk, meat, hair, skins, horns and even their dung since Neolithic times.
Modern goat-lovers can expound on all the wonders of the creature: goatmilk, goat cheese, goat yoghurt and kefir and a slew of lavish body products made from goatmilk, like lotions and soaps. Some have especially soft fleece that can be spun into yarn. Most are probably slaughtered for meat, given the dietary preferences of many cultures, and the fact that raising a goat for meat is roughly half the cost of raising a dairy goat – and much less expensive than raising beef cattle, as well.
Ann and Larry Cihanek of Green Goats Farm in Rhinebeck keep goats for another reason: They rent their animals out literally to mow down property that’s overgrown with pernicious plants and to clear terrain that is impossible to mow, like steep hillsides. “Goats prefer not to eat grass,” says Larry. “They like weeds, poison ivy – all the things that are invasive. On the top of their hit list are kudzu, anything with thorns and Japanese knotweed.” They take in as many goats as a job requires and keep them in a fenced-in area for a few weeks, a month or an entire growing season. “The herd comes out when there’s no more leaves left” – which is what it takes to eradicate unwanted vegetation. He explains that eating down an invasive species damages the roots, and the plants die.
The Cihaneks have run their business for nine years, but sustained a tragic turn of events last February, when the barn in Red Hook that held their herd of 100 caught fire and burned to the ground, killing all their beloved goats. It was especially hard for Ann Cihanek, who bottle-feeds every baby goat that they get. Bottle-feeding creates bonding, which is important because if one gets out of the fence, they have to be able to catch it.
On the morning that I arrived to visit, Ann was wandering around the unfenced yard with seven one-week-old babies following her. She picked one up as we talked and kissed its face. “They’re like babies,” she says. “I bottle-feed them four times a day; I look into their eyes. You automatically kiss their heads. One of my first thoughts after the fire was, ‘I am not going to love another goat.’ But what I realized is that doesn’t matter. You love them – their personalities and everything about them. They’re yours.” She names them all. A small pen hold 17 more three-month-olds, already weaned.
“We initially thought we were in the vegetation removal business,” says Larry. “Turns out we’re also in the tourist attraction business. Typically the goats are taken out on the job when they’re about a year old. But there are some jobs where cute is the objective, like in the cemetery in Jersey City. They became a tourist attraction for all the people in the neighborhood who wanted to meet goats. At six months old, they’re cuter. We put up vending machines to let people feed the goats, and it became a fundraiser.”
He describes how their goats became a focus in one neighborhood park, surrounded by houses full of people who didn’t know each other – but they rallied together to make sure that the goats had fresh water every day: “It became a neighborhood project.” Ann talks about a boy who volunteered to give them water. “At first he saw the goats and asked, ‘What is that?’ Had never seen one, never been to a petting zoo. He spent the summer with the goats, and then when they were killed in the fire, he sent $10 and said he wished he had more to give.”
The Cihaneks are blown away by the generosity of people, particularly other goat-owners who have donated animals to replenish their stock. In addition to their kids, they have adults of various breeds, all now housed in a neighbor’s barn or working out in the field. Because of this outpouring of giving, they have been able to fulfill their current vegetation removal contracts, which range from Philadelphia to Long Island, Staten Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and nearby properties like the Vanderbilt Mansion and Wilderstein. The couple is humbled and grateful for donations to restore their barn and keep their business going.
“All these goats have been donated,” Larry says, pointing out different breeds and pairs in the adult pen. “It turns out that people may have four or five goats, and things get out of hand. Suddenly they need to make room for a new one. An old goat means: the meat market. So people have been calling us to give us their old goats. We’re running a goat rescue. We’re thanking them and they’re thanking us, because the only alternative for them is a butcher shop. Now their goats get to graze in beautiful place.”
The Cihaneks are hoping to rebuild by winter. But their losses were humongous. In addition to losing their herd, they were left with no equipment or materials, including six miles of fencing. “In winter we go through $60 of hay a day. They don’t like to get their feet wet if they can avoid it. They need concrete floor. Each park setup is a $900-to-$1,200 expense to clear a fenceline and run fencing. Our total loss was close to $200,000.” Still, he says, “It’s a wonderful way to make a living. We couldn’t possibly come back without all the help we’ve gotten.”
When asked if they serve any private homeowners, the Cihaneks explain that they don’t do private houses because of the gardens and flowers. “They’ll eat everything green,” says Larry. “And we try to explain that because of the costs of our fencing, it just doesn’t work to do it in someone’s yard. It’s not like you can put two goats on a leash and walk them around to eat.”
When they arrive at a site, the animals just get out of the vehicle and start munching – everything inside their fence. The goats are left in place until the job is complete. “We don’t need to feed them anything else. They eat. You don’t have to tell them what to do.” For the latest updates on the fundraising campaign, visit www.facebook.com/redhookbarnraising and see www.green-goats.com for more about the Green Goats.
Meanwhile, local goat farms have sprung up (an apt verb to apply to a herd of frisky goats) to offer meats and handmade dairy products, which can often be found at local farmers’ markets and specialty delis. Check out Lynnhaven Dairy Goats in Pine Bush (lynnhavennubians.com), Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow (heather-ridge-farm.com), Coach Farm in Pine Plains (coachfarm.com) and Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie (sproutcreekfarm.org), among the many scattered across the upstate landscape. A visit to a goat farm is always delightful, but don’t wear your most expensive, delectable shirts! These always-hungry animals will nibble anything within their reach.
Goat-keepers will celebrate the best of the best this Saturday, June 27 in the Progressive Dairy Goat Club Show at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, where more than 150 goats of various breeds will compete for championship status. Show secretary Irene Decker lists the eight names of breeds being judged: Alpine, La Mancha, Nigerian, Dwarf, Nubian, Oberhasli, Saanen and Toggenburg, along with mixed breeds called “Recorded Grade.” “There’s no prize money for the winners,” Decker says. “In each group – open and junior doe – goats are examined one at a time and graded on appearance and health. Children exhibiting animals will be judged on their showmanship.” Winners are awarded First Place ribbons in each show, and then compete for the championship position of Best in Show in various categories and overall.
Following the regulations of the American Dairy Goat Association, these contests allow breeders to display their hard-earned expertise in animal husbandry. Like an extension of agriculture clubs such as 4-H, Dairy Goat Club shows provide a forum for breeders to increase their own stocks and spend a day socializing with other goat people. The local club has been holding annual shows for more than four decades.
“There are not as many goat farms now as there were years ago,” says Decker. “With zoning changes and people moving up from the city – they may think it’s quaint to live next door to a goat farm, until they don’t. Plus, the cost of feed used to be $9 for 100 pounds; now it’s $32. And a bale of hay used to be $1. I’m 77 and my husband is 78, so we don’t keep goats anymore.” She continues to do her part to produce the Goat Show, however. “This is not a fair,” she says, “but the show is free. People can come in and watch the proceedings.”
This year the Show is chaired by Melanie Bonanza, and the judges are Cindi Shelley and Allen Bitter. The competition takes all day, beginning at 9 a.m. and running until late afternoon when the final award is handed out. There will be a raffle table and eats for sale, and attendees are encouraged to bring their own coffee mug for hot coffee all day long. Come check out the fun-and-funny creatures causing all the fuss.
Progressive Dairy Goat Show, Saturday, June 27, 9 a.m.-afternoon, Dutchess County Fairgrounds, 6550 Spring Brook Avenue, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-4001, (845) 266-3812, https://dutchessfair.com.