Here’s something you don’t see every day: hundreds of goats roaming the hills along Crow Canyon Road.
If you happened to be driving near the San Ramon Service Center the past few weeks, you may have seen about 600 of the hardy, four-legged creatures grazing there.
The herd belongs to Goats R Us, a family-owned grazing company based in Orinda. The goats were contracted by East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) to reduce vegetation for fire management.
Andrea Pook, EBMUD spokesperson, says they’ve been using goats in watershed areas and around their facilities since 1986.
“They are very efficient, especially for the steeper areas,” she says.
Brian Cordeiro, fire captain with the East Bay Regional Park District, regularly sets up grazing contracts with Goats R Us. He says goat grazing helps “reduce flame height so we can more easily put fires out.”
The park district has been using goats for fuel management in its open spaces since the 1991 Oakland fire. Local areas include Las Trampas Regional Wilderness and Bishop Ranch Open Space.
But you won’t see goats only from a distance. Goats R Us co-owner Terri Oyarzun says she gets a lot of contracts from homeowners associations in San Ramon and Danville.
In fact, her next San Ramon job is for the Deerwood Homeowners Association, set to start as soon as this weekend.
Terri and her husband, co-owner Egon Oyarzun, have been in the goat-grazing business about 20 years.
“My husband was always a rancher,” Terri says. “It’s in his blood, it makes him happy.”
Egon, who grew up in southern Chile, helped his father break oxen to pull carts.
The couple started with small, private projects. In 1995, they had 54 goats that they put in neighbors’ yards to clear brush and poison oak.
Their livestock has grown to several thousand, and includes the following breeds: Angora, Alpine, Spanish, Boer, Pygmy, La Mancha and Nubian.
The goats are divided into herds designed to work at a particular job site. They graze land owned privately or by government agencies, utility companies, schools and churches – “Any entity with open space that prefers a green alternative to clearing,” says Terri.
Goats are definitely a greener choice. Other methods of clearing, such as the use of machinery, controlled burning or poison, can be hazardous and damage the environment.
Goats are handy. They eat most vegetation, including plants such as poison oak that are difficult to clear by hand. They will readily consume otherwise undesirable species such as pampas grass, thistles and blackberry.
And, since they generally eat the top of the plant instead of removing it by the roots, goats may be less damaging to native plants than cattle.
The goat-grazing business is more than just a job to the Oyarzuns.
“We really enjoy doing what we do,” Terri says. “We’re helping tens of thousands of families every year to be far more fire safe, we provide entertainment, and an education about agriculture. We touch a lot of people’s lives in a positive way.”
In a society that has become increasingly disposable, the Oyarzuns refuse to auction off their goats once they’re past their prime.
“We’re not your typical ranchers,” Terri says. “We keep all of our retired goats. We invest our money and our care in them because they have cared for us. We’re not going to kill them just because they’re old.”
As you drive along the hills or hike the trails this summer, you might be fortunate enough to see some of the Oyarzuns' goats at work, eating noxious weeds and plants, doing their part to make our community fire safe.
“They’re wonderful creatures,” Terri says. “They make you happy, they make you smile.”