Adrian Dominican Sisters Welcome Guest Workers: A Herd of Goats

August 6, 2021, Adrian, Michigan –Adrian Dominican Sisters on the Motherhouse campus for weeks waited with great anticipation for the arrival of 20 guest workers to the campus. On the morning of July 31, 2021, the workers arrived, strolling out of the trailer of Munchers on Hooves: a herd of 20 goats.

No kidding – goats at the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse?

The goats are part of a long line of non-human Co-workers serving in the Congregation’s permaculture site. The area has also been the home of thousands of worms who, through the practice of vermiculture, have helped compost organic materials. More recently, two hives of bees have made their home at the Motherhouse, serving as pollinators. The goats, in turn, immediately went to work, grazing on the vegetation in a designated, fenced-in area of the permaculture site. 

While their arrival has brought about great anticipation and excitement since Jared Aslakson, Permaculture Specialist, announced it to the campus community in a July 15, 2021, email, the goats have come on campus for a serious purpose: to keep invasive species of plants in check and to help manage the landscape.

From left, Sisters Joella Miller, OP, Anele Heiges, OP, and Rosemary Asaro, OP, wait for the goats to be let out of their trailer.

Goats are a natural for the permaculture site. Permaculture is a system of land use that cooperates with natural systems rather than dominating them, with a focus on sustainability and ecological health. 

In recent years, goats have become more popular for land restoration work , Jared explained. Garrett and Gina Fickle, owners of Munchers on Hooves, have rented their goats to people in residential areas, construction sites, and rural land for about six years. 

The goats were set to work at the Motherhouse, grazing in three designated areas, each fenced off in turn by Garrett, Gina, and other employees of Munchers on Hooves. They remained at the Motherhouse for five days to complete their tasks. 

“When I started working here and seeing what the permaculture site was doing, it seemed obvious that one of the things the field could benefit from was having large grazers,” Jared said. He sees the goats as part of an overall strategy to rid the site of invasive plant species, particularly the Bradford Pear tree; teasel, a flowering plant; and Canadian thistles. 

Invasive species – those that are natural to other areas but introduced into new areas – can exploit the ecosystem and hurt the native species. “An invasive species is placed outside of the ecological place in which it was evolved, so it doesn’t have anything that will naturally function to keep it in check,” Jared explained. By dominating the ecosystem and reducing the number of native plants, invasive plants also damage the pollinators and insects that depend on the native plants and reduce species diversity. 

Goats are a more natural solution to invasive plants than chemical herbicides. “The idea is that with repeated disturbance – things like mowing and grazing by large animals – you’re preventing the invasive species from sending out seeds and taking over the area,” Jared explained. The goats are coming late enough in the season that it would be hard for the invasive plants to come back in the summer. The goats will slow their spread, he added.

One goat is already hard at work, grazing on the Permaculture site.

“Using these grazers in combination with mowing and burning when appropriate is a super important way to get a handle on what’s going on and form higher quality plant communities,” Jared said. “The move toward using biological means rather than chemical or mechanical means is a good thing. It’s partnering with what goats want to do anyway. If we could get closer to our goals on land, that’s a real win-win.”

The situation is certainly a “win” for the goats, who spend their time grazing on land that provides a variety of plants – and for the Sisters and Co-workers, who have enjoyed watching the goats from a distance. The hope is that the Munchers on Hooves goats will make several return visits in years to come, helping to create a diverse and healthy permaculture site on the Motherhouse property.