The Goats of Lake Hefner

Goats & Sheep at Lake HefnerThe Oklahoma City Utility Department has hired some unusual employees—and they aren’t human. Thirty-five goats, two sheep and a donkey are filling the job of the Lake Hefner Lawn Crew quite nicely.

City employees and the public have fallen in love with the idea of using animals to mow the grass. It’s an age-old agricultural practice that’s new again. In fact, the herd has reached celebrity status, with a fan-following on both Facebook and Twitter.

This odd menagerie is living proof that animals outperform machines when it comes to safely mowing the grass along the steep slopes of the canal. Why? Maintenance workers were putting themselves at risk for injury when they drove the heavy mowing equipment along the lake’s canal slopes.

“The grass was high, you could hardly see, and the bank was eroding into the canal,” explained Dr. Steve Hart, who works at Langston University’s American Institute for Goat Research. “Goats can handle steep places like that just fine.”

Greening Up the Clean-Up

Goat at Lake HefnerGoats are also environmentally friendly and they reduce gas emissions and the need for weed killer and chemical fertilizers. Goats excel at eating and fertilizing! “Each goat takes his own path, eating as he goes,” Hart said. “This helps revegetate the land, because their hooves are spreading seeds with every step.”

Hart credits recently retired city employee, Monte Hannon, for approaching Langston University over a decade ago with the idea of hiring goats. With 700 goats on campus and 35 years of research about vegetation management, Langston staff members were supportive of the idea—but the timing wasn’t right.

“The timing was finally right when the city faced the purchase of a $300,000 mowing machine,” Hart said. “Someone remembered the goat idea—and goats are a lot cheaper.” Since the first five months of the project, the city has spent about $2,500 a month, with much of that applied to the initial cost of building shelters for the animals.

“Even the National Parks system is using goat herds, because they are trying to keep their land pristine and clean,” said Debbie Ragan, marketing manager for the Oklahoma City Utility Department.

Goats at Lake HefnerIn August 2014, the Water Utilities Trust approved the idea, and two days later, a herd of 19 goats moved from Langston to Lake Hefner. City employees fenced in a mile along the canal and built shelters for the animals. Eventually, the herd will be moved to other locations along a six-mile stretch of the canal.

“There is already a noticeable difference in the amount of vegetation around the canal,” said Ragan. “Goats don’t just eat grass­—they love leaves, woody vines, cedar and poison ivy.”

Guard Donkey

Employees from the utility department check on the animals daily, doing a head count, making sure they are healthy and providing supplemental food during the winter. Langston staff and students periodically clean their hooves and check for worms.

Samule the DonkeyBut the real caretaker of the herd is a donkey named Samule, who was recently named in an online voting contest. His job is to herd the goats, protect them and watch for predators, such as feral dogs. By nature, donkeys are alert to danger, especially canines. Because they bray a loud warning, many farmers use them to guard livestock. The original 19-member herd has grown to 37, and may continue to grow.

Both the utility department and Langston University have been pleased with the goat partnership. Hart hopes that more entities will embrace goats as effective, environmentally-friendly lawn mowers.

“It’s been a community effort. Our employees love the goats, and the goats have done a good job at the canal,” Ragan said. “Oklahoma City has really embraced the herd as a positive thing.”

Check out the Hefner Canal Goats on facebook.

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