There's something incredibly soothing, if not subtly hypnotic, about the sound of goats munching dry brush, a soft popping and crackling like record-album static in the wind. Intermittently, hoof stomps reverberate through the ground with a "whoomp," and deep snorts are constant as the animals clear their nostrils to detect predators, here in the gated Cedar Heights community, outside Manitou Springs.
One of the big guys with rear-pointing horns above his gray cashmere coat suddenly rears up and puts his legs against a young tree. He peels bark in long strips that he snaps like a bubblegum thread with a head-jerk. The rest of the pack of females and neutered males amble between Gambel oak leaves, mountain mahogany, knapweed, mullein, curly cup gumweed, kochia and a mix of native grasses and pine tree varieties.
Lani Malmberg lists those off while patrolling a thin, mobile electric fence with her border collies, Flint and Zippy, to whom she credits the real work. "It would be impossible without them," she says. "The only thing smarter than a goat is a border collie ... humans are eighth or so, just under bacteria."
Her big smile shows under dark glasses and a black-and-white cap that matches the dogs. Her dirty-blond hair cascades over a teal neckerchief, purple vest and baby blue-and-orange plaid shirt. Jeans and white leather cowgirl gloves complete the rancher look, though she calls herself a "gypsy goat herder."
Malmberg works 365 days a year, living in a camper and taking work between the Missouri River and Pacific Ocean, as far latitudinal as the Canada and Mexico borders.
Though she's currently on a 10-day contract to clear brush from Cedar Heights, she's best known in these parts for 16 years of fall visits to Bear Creek Park, where her "employees" manage weeds in a more eco-friendly manner than commonly used machinery or chemicals. A visit to her EWE4IC Ecological Services website, goatseatweeds.com, begins with a Top 10 list of why goats rule in this manner. Among benefits: They aid in fire prevention while helping build healthy soil by tramping, aerating and fertilizing it, also making it more absorptive for water, combating runoff.
These 400 goats from Malmberg's 1,000-head herd can eat one ton of dried vegetation (read: fire tinder) per day, and in steep areas like Cedar Heights that are difficult or prohibitive for machinery. That's why chairman of the emergency evacuation committee and resident Nancy Neale reached out to Malmberg to help re-clear a 60-foot wide, 2-mile long stretch of the community's 300-acre conservation easement (via the Palmer Land Trust) called Solitude Park.
During the Waldo Canyon Fire, Neale says, "We didn't burn." Flames reached Cedar Heights' boundaries, but prior mitigation work gifted firefighters defensible space.
The goat expense is shared by residents of the nearly 300 homes, out of a general fund composed of quarterly HOA dues. Neale says the community has embraced them wholeheartedly, with positive comments and enthusiastic visits to watch them in action.
Another of their benefits: "No seeds go through a goat," says Malmberg. Enzymes make them capable of digesting noxious and poisonous weeds, of which there are around 70 in Colorado, including allelopathic plants that suppress indigenous plants' germination.
"I've put them on everything poisonous I've come across over the years," she says, "so they've built up this ability to digest everything in every setting, which is extremely valuable for a herd to have."
The way in which goats eat is also important, she says, citing their narrow, pointed faces, mouth shape and lateral chewing. Versus grazers like cattle that eat only grass, goats are browsers that climb trees and devour twigs up to pinky-finger width. They pick and nibble, essentially pruning, whereas machinery makes dramatic cuts, in her belief sending the plant into shock and subsequently a survival mode to send out more foliage and seed.
The goats "are nurturing versus force," she says. "Gentle. Nothing drastic." Her business, she adds, "is a perfect blend of art and science, with a layer of spirituality on top of that."
In a Zen way, albeit laced with the crunching and snorting and beneficial pooping, she embraces working "with the spirit of the land and the animals and the predators."
Sometimes an eagle, wolf, mountain lion or rare coyote will pick off a goat, but it's the also-rare off-leash dog that holds the kill record: A chow once broke 19 necks in a single pass through the herd. Another surprising murderer was a cloud of hydrogen sulfide gas from an oil well, which suffocated some kids who'd sought shade in low-lying badger holes.
Still another killer is weather: A 100-year ice storm in 2004 in Western Oklahoma brought wet, freezing drizzle — cashmere's worst enemy, since goats lack lanolin in their hair, meaning water penetrates and causes hypothermia. That took out 350 animals overnight.
Malmberg left her Wyoming-based family business of ranching in 1986 when cattle prices were low and financials forced her out. At age 33, she went back to school and earned degrees in environmental restoration, botany and biology from Grand Junction's Mesa State College and then a master's degree in weed science from Fort Collins' Colorado State University.
"Those of us with master's degrees in weed science were slated to go work for chemical companies to sell chemicals, and I didn't want to do that. So I made this up and wanted to hold my values to me, which were working with animals, working outside and keeping my two children with me," she says. "It was the perfect timing, right at what I call the age of environmentalism and awareness, where people started to question pesticides. ...
"It's my passion to heal the land, and use these animals to do it."
In the last 19 years, she's owned up to 2,500 head, breeding between 100 and 200 animals between each May and June to keep stock and experience. Living around 12 years on average, her goats will each take about 700 rides in a semi trailer. They cost $5 per loaded mile for trucking and anywhere from $1 to $10 per head per day, depending on many factors, such as hauling water to a site. (Cedar Heights cost $2; goats arrived on one four-deck semi.)
"This herd has incredible knowledge," she says, "They know the job ... they have purpose ... and that behavior is invaluable."
Given that, she doesn't butcher any for meat, though "it's really delicious if the right person cooks it," she says, acknowledging that it's the most widely eaten meat worldwide and fastest-growing meat for market-share in the U.S. She lets her goats die with dignity amongst the herd when possible.
"That's what I wish for myself," she says. "That I get a little slower every year, then one day I'll just be too tired to go anymore, and I'll just get out of the wind, into the sun, and just lay down and peacefully die and no one will remember where they last saw me ... so I'll just become a memory, then after a while, they won't remember if it was a real story or not."