By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
GLASGOW, Ky. – Al Dilley is in the weed-clearing business.
Have an overgrown fence row or vacant lot that you want cleaned up? Al's your man.
When Dilley goes to work, he can use up to 35 weed eaters at the same time. How can one 67-year-old man do that?
Dilley has a herd of hungry goats. He owns Goat Browsers, a business he calls "an environmentally friendly, natural land enhancement service."
The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture says Dilley, of Glasgow, has the only business in the state they know of that is using goats to clear hard-to-mow weeds and brush. But Dilley said the practice is common out west.
Goat Browsers' website, www.goatbrowsers.com, has photos of goats clearing weeds all over the country, including hundreds used to clear brush before forest fire season. "They're big in California," Dilley noted.
Nature's weed clearing machines
The reason is the old adage that goats will eat just about anything. If given a choice, goats would consume 60 percent vines and broad leaves, 20 percent weeds, and only 20 percent grasses, according to the website, which cites university studies.
About the only thing goats can't eat are poisonous plants such as hemlock, rhododendron, or wild cherry in the wilted stage. But the animals will happily gobble fast-growing honeysuckle, kudzu, poison ivy, privet, wild rose, and Chinese wisteria, and they're not deterred by thorns.
"They have no top teeth, and they swirl it around in their mouths [to avoid thorns]," Dilley said. "I like to watch them eat. It's amazing."
Dilley said cows and horses normally stand in one spot and eat until the grass around them is gone. But goats are browsers and prefer to roam around while eating. They are natural climbers not bothered by steep slopes and uneven terrain.
"That's a selling point," Dilley said. "If you can Bush Hog it, you don't need me."
Goats don't damage the land. Instead of having to collect and haul debris away, goats take care of foliage on site, leaving only nature's "fertilizer" behind.
"Goats are a whole lot more friendly on a piece of property," Dilley said.
Goats also have a voracious appetite, consuming 3 percent of their body weight daily while eating eight to 12 hours a day, according to the website.
When bidding a job, Dilley figures 10 goats can clear 1 acre in three weeks. He uses a portable electric fence to keep his herd confined and keep predators, such as dogs, away.
"It's a niche business," Dilley said. "You gotta be a little crazy to do it. My nickname around town is 'goat man.'"
Before he became "goat man," Dilley worked for more than 35 years as a tool and die maker at a roller bearing factory in Glasgow. When the factory closed in 2007, he was 62 and signed up for Social Security.
But Dilley's retirement lasted only a week. He decided to return to college to train for a second career under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which pays tuition and books for Americans whose jobs are eliminated by foreign competition.
Dilley, who already held an associate's degree in machine technology, earned his second two-year degree in industrial maintenance technology in 2009. Now he teaches a class at Western Kentucky University's Glasgow campus.
"I teach people how to run mills, lathes, and other precision tools," he said. "They're training to be maintenance people."
Magazine article inspired Dilley
Dilley's involvement in goats can be traced back 40 years, when he read a magazine article about a man who used goats to clear brush on interstate highway embankments in Montana that were too steep to mow. "The idea stuck with me," he said.
About five years ago, Dilley bought a pet goat for his granddaughter and remembered the article. Then he saw another article in Hobby Farm Magazine about a man using goats to clear weeds. He emailed the subject, who called him.
"I went to our [Barren] County agent and asked him if anybody in the state did this," Dilley said. "He didn't think so but referred me to Terry Hutchens [Extension associate for goat production at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University], who referred me to a guy in North Carolina who was doing it, and I talked to him."
Dilley attended a four-day seminar on goats in 2009 hosted by Tennessee State University's Extension Service, which led him to buy five goats and lease 13 acres just up the road from his home near Glasgow, which sits on 2.6 acres.
By September 2009, Goat Browsers had its first job clearing a 7½-acre cemetery at Wininger Homestead Farm in Barren County. He said the business is targeting abandoned family cemeteries and plans to contact the Kentucky Historical Society to find out where some more are located.
Dilley took his growing herd to an overgrown fencerow in the backyard of his dentist's house. Ten goats cleared the half-acre fencerow in 25 days.
Although he's dealt only with private landowners so far, Dilley has proposed transporting his goats in Lexington to clear invasive weeds at The Arboretum State Botanical Garden of Kentucky. Dilley also is bidding on a project to clean out an old cemetery in Bowling Green. City officials contacted a contractor, who told them he would charge $50,000 just to transport his equipment to the job site.
"I can do it much cheaper than that!" Dilley said. "The cemetery is an eyesore. You can't see the headstones, but I know they're in there somewhere."
Dilley charges a minimum $150 per job to transport his goats to the site. Additional charges are based on how big the job is.
Dilley said he joined Kentucky Proud to help expose his unique business.
"Kentucky Proud has a whole wide base of exposure," he said. "About everywhere you turn, you see the Kentucky Proud logo at farmers' markets, stickers on pick-up trucks, signs in stores.
"It's a program beneficial to the farming community," Dilley added, "and I want to be part of that."