Owings golf park employs goats to maintain courses

December 7, 2011

The owner of Mellomar Golf Park in Owings has found the perfect maintenance crew.

It works seven days per week, never complains about working weekends or holidays and, in fact, isn’t even paid.

The crew consists of goats from Prosperity Acres, a family-owned beef and goat farm in Sunderland. Mark “Doc” Grace, the golf park’s owner, made an agreement in July with Mary Bowen of Prosperity Acres. Since then, 17 of Bowen’s 49 goats have been grazing on the commercial property, getting rid of unwanted vegetation in a less expensive and safer way than by using manpower and chemicals, Bowen and Grace said.

Large areas of briars, weeds and honeysuckle divide the fairways on the golf course, and golf balls are often lost when players hit a shot into the rough, Grace said.

With the recession, he said, he needed an inexpensive way to get rid of the brush.

“Golf courses are having an extremely difficult time in this economy,” he said. “There is so much uncertainty, so discretionary income is not being spent at golf courses. . . . I plan to do what I have to do to keep my golf course in business.”

Grace said that since the recession hit about 2007, he has been forced to operate on 30 to 40 percent of the revenue his business used to generate each year before the recession.

“I wanted my golfers to be able to go in the wooded areas and find their ball,” he said. Bowen “told me her goats were eating her out of house and home.”

Grace and Bowen saw the arrangement as a win-win.

Grace’s daughter Emily, 21, attends Berry College in Georgia, a school known for its environmental science and agriculture programs. She came home from college one semester and said she was tired of hearing him complain about how expensive it was to clear the unwanted vegetation at the park, which consists of a driving range, a nine-hole, par-three course and a regulation-length nine-hole course. She suggested using goats, so he bought a couple of goats from the Bowen family to test the idea, he said.

“We had the land for it,” Emily Grace said. “We talked about how much land we could open up.”

When it became apparent that two goats couldn’t do the whole job, Bowen sent Grace 15 more, and he bought a battery-powered electric fence to pen them into one area at a time. When they finish grazing in that area, they are rotated to another. The rotation happens about every three weeks.

“You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw how fast these goats cleared the brush out,” Grace said. “They [obliterate] everything from the ground level to about six feet. They stand on their back legs and just keep eating.” They can reach up to six feet when standing on their back legs, he said.

Bowen owns most of the goats, and she and her children visit the golf park a few times a week to make sure the goats are healthy, because they also serve another purpose. They are breeding goats, and their male offspring eventually will be butchered and sold to her farm’s customers. Once she has enough meat orders for a load, the bucks will be slaughtered and the does will remain as breeding stock as she sells the meat from the family farm. In the spring, the does will give birth at the golf course.

Typically, one goat produces half its weight in meat, Bowen said, so a 100-pound goat would produce 50 pounds of meat. They are sent to the butcher when they are from 6 months to a year old, about five at a time.

Bowen said she is excited about being part of this local endeavor, especially because she benefits, as well.

“He gets to use the goats, tells everybody about the goats, markets the meat,” she said. “I can sell the meat by telling people they’re fed naturally; they’re getting a natural mineral supplement. He’s been doing a great job, and we’ve been selling more meat because of it.”

Bowen said that the goats seem to enjoy grazing on the golf course and that the success of the arrangement with Grace is giving her ideas for the future. She is considering creating a business in which she would rent goats to properties in the environmentally sensitive critical area, where strict regulations prevent landowners from using herbicides.

“This is such an ‘eco’ way to go. More people should be doing this,” she said.

She said she knows other places use goats to clear away unwanted vegetation. In Maryland, a business called Eco-Goats, a division of Sustainable Resource Management, started a few years ago in Anne Arundel County, where landowners can hire the goats to get rid of invasive plants. Gaithersburg in Montgomery County, Urbana in Frederick County, Historic St. Mary’s City and the American Chestnut Land Trust in Calvert County are among Eco-Goats’ clients.

As for Grace, he saves thousands of dollars per year by using goats instead of manpower or the chemicals that can harm the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He easily spent as much as $4,000 a year on herbicides and labor before using goats, he said.

Patrons also seem to enjoy the goats, he said.

“I have had golfers that have discovered the goats, gone home, gotten a camera and come back with their kids and had them pose with the goats,” Grace said. “They enjoy interacting with people.”

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