For the Love of Goats
It might sounds like it’s too good to be true — take your goats to someone else’s land and have them eat the brush and weeds while you are being paid. Goat landscaping is now more popular than ever, but it is not quite as simple as loading up your goats and having someone pay you while also providing free food for your goats.
Today I’m talking to Aaron Steele of Goats on the Go about what it’s really like to run a goat landscaping business. He is talking about how he got started, pitfalls to avoid, and how he helps other entrepreneurs start their own goat grazing businesses.
Deborah Niemann 0:00
Hey everyone, and welcome to another episode. I am joined today by Aaron Steele, who is the founder and co owner of Goats on the Go, which is a goat landscaping business. Welcome to the show, Aaron
Aaron Steele 0:15
Thank, Deborah. I’m happy to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
Deborah Niemann 0:18
I think a lot of people when they hear about goat landscaping, they think, “Oh my goodness, I can make all this money by just taking my goat somewhere and letting somebody else feed them.” And so, I wanted to do this show with somebody who is quite experienced in this, who can tell people a little bit about the realities, like, I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than just loading up your goats, going somewhere, and letting someone else feed them and paying you for that. So first, let’s kind of start like, so what came first the business idea, or the goats?
Aaron Steele 0:51
Yeah, that’s a great one. Well, a small number of goats came first. We live on a small acreage, near Ames, Iowa, in central Iowa. And when we moved out here, we really just wanted to live in the country. But then we started feeling kind of an agricultural pull, like how can we make this feel a little bit more like a farm? And not only that, but our, our acreage was far too big to mow â€” too much grass to mow, but way too small to be interesting to a farmer in a conventional sense. So, we started looking for some kind of livestock that could eat the extra grass, and extra vegetation, we had with minimal maintenance. And so we stumbled on to goats. And we bought a few goats and thought, “Oh, these will be great. We’ll get these goats in the spring about when our kids are getting out from school. And they can have chores all summer long. And then we’ll sell the goats in the fall when they go back to school and before it gets cold.” And, that plan works fine until we realized how much we loved the goats and were really impressed with what they can do. And, like I said, we kind of were feeling this agricultural gene kind of emerge â€” this farmer gene emerge â€” a little bit. I’m a city kid, but my wife grew up on a farm. And we just started to be like, just living in the country wasn’t enough. We wanted to participate in agriculture in some way. And so we started thinking about how could we keep these goats and maybe even produce more? How can we turn this into more, more than just a hobby? How can we produce food for people and deliver some conservation benefit as well? So that eventually led us to the targeted goat-grazing business. After looking around and doing some research and, and finding it viable in other parts of the country, we didn’t really have a model to follow here in the Midwest, but we decided to give it a go.
Deborah Niemann 2:45
What year did you get started in?
Aaron Steele 2:47
We launched in the fall of 2012. Basically by just putting up a website, and, and having an idea, you know. It was the grazing season, the growing season was over, so we were really just looking forward to the following year and trying to get our business model in order.
Deborah Niemann 3:06
Okay. So how did you actually even get this idea back then? Because in 2012, it was still pretty uncommon. Did you hear about somebody else doing it? Or…
Aaron Steele 3:18
You know, I had a vague notion that businesses like that existed somewhere. And I don’t know where that came from, but it was in the back of my brain somehow. And so it was just an easy step from there to do a little bit of internet research, and indeed find a handful of those companies, but they were really scattered. Their business models were all over the map. So there wasn’t much of a template to follow. But I guess that was enough. Enough to give me enough confidence to go ahead and work on my own model and plow forward.
Deborah Niemann 3:52
Okay, so then did you â€” did you just load up the goats and go off somewhere and let them start munching? Or, how, how did it go when you first got started?
Aaron Steele 4:02
Well, you know, there was a great deal of uncertainty. Still, I had not operated a business of my own or started a business in the past. So we went to another family that we knew real well, that kind of had similar values of ours, and we’re in a similar situation, you know, kind of a homesteading type of environment where they were dabbling in agriculture, but it was having trouble getting past the hobby. And so we partnered with them to start the business. I think that gave me a lot of extra confidence just to have somebody else on my side and somebody else on my team. And we set out â€” maybe we were just handicapping ourselves â€” but we set out to say, “Well, this year, we’re not even gonna plan on making any money this year. We’ll just do a couple of projects for friends and family, maybe a volunteer project here or there, and we’ll learn a lot. We’ll take lots of photos, lots of videos, take lots of notes, and we’ll see if this has any potential.” So we actually went to a nearby park system that was outside of city limits â€” a county park system. And we asked if we could do a demonstration project. And it’s a really nice park. It’s a highly trafficked park, a lot of walkers and hikers and joggers. So, they agreed. And we did a one-acre project, and we just, for the heck of it, sent out a press release or two. And before we knew it, we had some local news coverage. And the phone started ringing. So even though we hadn’t really planned to make any money that year, we were off to the races right away.
Deborah Niemann 5:29
Awesome. How did it go with the goats? Did the… Were the goats totally on board and cooperative from the beginning, and made it really easy for you?
Aaron Steele 5:38
Yes, it was perfect. no problems whatsoever. No, we… the goats… it took a while for the goats to get used to loading into a trailer, you know, and for us to have the confidence to know what the mannerisms of the goats and the body postures of the goats could tell us about whether they were going to get on that trailer cooperatively or not, you know. Now we’ve got it really down to a science; we’ve had generations of goats get on trailers and get off trailers to some amazing new food every time, you know. And so we do find that, that that goes a lot easier now.
Aaron Steele 6:16
But, you know, the goats certainly loved the vegetation right away. We did not have to spend much time introducing them to new feed. They were already eating similar things at our houses, and the few new plants seemed to be… move right to the top of their list very quickly. So that was an easy transition.
Deborah Niemann 6:40
So, if somebody wanted to start a business like this, what are some of the things… Like, are there situations where you would say, “No, this is not going to be right for you”?
Aaron Steele 6:52
Yeah, you know, we have, since we started Goats on the Go, after a few years, the demand â€” we’re so pleased with the demand. But also, we’re getting a lot of people contacting us asking for advice on starting their own goat-grazing businesses. So, since then, we have developed a network of “affiliates,” we call them, across the country that operate their own goat-grazing businesses under our brand. And so we have got that, gotten the opportunity to see a variety of personalities try to make a go of this business. And I think maybe the… There’s a certain naivety to believing that “I’m just going to spend my days working outside with these goats that I love in idyllic landscapes for six months a year, and it’s going to replace my six-figure salary.” You know, so we do work pretty hard when we talk to folks about this business, about kind of getting past that ideal. And dealing with some of the realities of it, you know, and, and those are… The things that come home to roost right away for most people when they do their first project with goats is just that how demanding the labor is. All of our affiliates across the country are independently owned businesses. They’re entrepreneurs, they can go hire labor if they want to. But they need to know that if they plan to do the labor themselves, it’s hard work. It’s just hard physical work. People sometimes say, “Well, I don’t even understand why this cost anything. Why do customers even pay you anything, you get all this free feed?”
Deborah Niemann 8:26
Aaron Steele 8:26
And, you know, we learned our lesson really fast in those first couple of paying projects that we had, that we weren’t charging nearly enough. And, we were delivering a valuable service, and that that service came with real costs. Maybe if this land was right adjacent to my little farm, I would do it for free, just for the feed. But there’s, you know, we’re working in public parks and along trails, and next to schools and in places with dogs off of leashes and people who aren’t aware of how electric fence works, you know, so there’s, there’s a fair amount of risk and a lot of labor involved. So, I guess that’s the the caution I give to people is be prepared for the hard work, and charge what it’s worth.
Deborah Niemann 8:28
One of the things that I immediately thought of when you were talking about being in public places was liability. I have a feeling if I called my insurance company and said, “Yeah, I’m gonna take my goats to start eating all over the place,” that they would not even know what to say. They would just be like, “What are you talking about?”
Aaron Steele 9:32
Well, once the insurance agent stops laughing…
Deborah Niemann 9:35
Aaron Steele 9:35
… you can start talking about the realities of the business. And the hardest thing with insurance companies is to get them to, to not freak out about something new. Insurance agents don’t like new things. And so, we’ve over the years developed a pretty good way of having conversations with insurance agents about what the work really involves in terms of risk and what it doesn’t involve. A good example is: Our first insurance agent didn’t know how to classify us, and didn’t… wasn’t about to create a new category for us. So he was looking for the closest, the closest bucket to drop us into, and we got dropped into the pest-control bucket, the lawncare bucket. And so, if you’d looked closely at our at our policy, we were paying for risk associated with hauling large volumes of chemical over the roads, you know, because that’s what lawncare companies do, that’s what landsscaping companies do is they carry fertilizer and pesticides on trucks. And, you know, that that was kind of… ran counter to what we were trying to do with our business, and clearly was not a risk for us. So over the years, we’ve gotten better at talking to insurance agents, we’ve even â€” our affiliates get the benefit of having kind of an insurance concierge that is used to weird animal-based businesses, and, and fully understands what it is we’re doing. So that has helped a lot. But it took, you know, going through three companies probably before we felt like we weren’t paying for risk we didn’t really have.
Deborah Niemann 11:16
Yeah, one of the things that I worry about with, with people in cities â€” and I tell people this, when just, if they want to have a couple of pet goats â€” is, you know, well, electric fencing is really not even an option for you because of the liability involved. Not that it’s going to kill somebody. But if somebody, you know, walks up and touches it and gets shocked, and stumbles backwards, falls, and breaks their arm, they could try to sue you because they can say, “Well, I lost my balance because that fence shocked me.” So what do you do? Because I know you are, you’re putting up electric fencing in areas where there are people. So what are you do to make sure that people stay away from it? Do you have signs or what?
Aaron Steele 11:59
In public places, we use a lot of signs, you know, and we set those signs back from the fence a little bit. So people are warned before they they approach the fence. But ultimately, one of the things I had to come to grips with in owning my first business was that no business is without risk in our society. And there’s… If you’re looking for the, the ideal business that presents no opportunity for you to be sued, you’re never going to find that business. So, while insurance agents might be a little bit scared by the description of what we do, and, and the word electâ€” the words “electric fence” tend to scare insurance agents. If you look closer at what we do with our… We have a lot less risk than other businesses that insurance companies came to grips with a long time ago. And so we just do our best, you, you know, we do our best to educate customers to educate the public, to just do responsible things. And inevitably, at some point, something will go wrong. But we just, we just can’t control all risk, we can just try to be prepared for problems as they pop up.
Deborah Niemann 13:08
So if somebody wanted to start a business like this, what would you tell them? Like what do they need to do initially, that like the first two or three things they would need to do, after they have their goats? Let’s just say…
Aaron Steele 13:21
After they have their goats.
Deborah Niemann 13:22
… Yeah, they’ve got the goats, and they’re like, “Hey, I want to put the goats to work.”
Aaron Steele 13:26
I think you need to understand â€” folks who are new to the idea need to understand â€” that simply having goats doesn’t put you at a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Anybody can get goats. What puts you at a competitive advantage is having expertise and knowledge and a customer service mindset. So we’re not, we’re often called a “goat rental service” as a shorthand, but we don’t rent goats. We couldn’t make a decent amount of money rentâ€” literally renting goats to people, you know. Just dropping them off and driving away and coming back in a couple of weeks. Where we make money is, and we deliver value to our customers is, with the expertise that we have, knowing how many goats it costs, what sizes of space are going to be required to deal with this species of vegetation in this environment at this density of vegetation, and then how do I also do a good job of communicating with my customers so that they feel at peace with this strange thing going on in their backyards, you know, or in their public park? That’s the stuff that delivers value that people will pay for. And so when we work with our affiliates and training them, we really drive toward that point. Anybody can own goats. What do we do differently? And how do we think about this more as a service than simply a product of this certain number of goats that are going to pile off the back of the trailer?
Deborah Niemann 14:50
Yeah, that is a really excellent point. I’ve heard vets say that, and so many people go to vet school because they’re like, “Oh, I love animals,” but really what you’re gonna â€” you’re going to be working with human beings all day. So… because you’re working with their owners.
Aaron Steele 15:05
Right. In fact, I often feel like, it’s not even a hybrid, like, yes, we’re, we’ve got a farm operation going on with this targeted grazing operation over here. And you feel like, well, you just need to be dabbling in both of them at the same time. Well, really, it’s almost a distinct thing. Once you understand how to raise goats and produce goats, and you’ve got that farm operation down, it’s an entirely different thing, to know how to market to individuals, package up a business model, and present them with a service that has value to them enough so that they’ll pay for it. So, you almost have to look at the two things distinctly.
Deborah Niemann 15:45
Yeah, one of the things that I think would be really hard, like, I’ve had goats for 18 years now, but if somebody said, you know, “Come over, and let me know how long it would take your goats to eat all this vegetation,” I couldn’t do that. You know, we do rotational grazing here, but we just, we just watch the goats, like, we don’t try to predict how long it’s going to take. You know, it’s like, “Yeah, it looks like they’ve eaten, you know, most of it. So we need to move on to another piece of land.” So how does anyone even begin? Like, I’m sure you can’t â€” there’s a lot of variables â€” but how do you even begin to estimate something like that?
Aaron Steele 16:20
Right. A lot of experience helps.
Deborah Niemann 16:23
Aaron Steele 16:25
It helps also that in any particular region in the US, you’re likely to get called to deal with the same kind of vegetation over and over again. So, you know, for example, I could list probably four species of plants that make up 90% of the phone calls for us. And when we get there, we find out that every setting is, you know, each one might have some unique challenges. But really, after a couple of years of doing this, you say, “Well, yeah, we’ve done that before, we’ve done that setting before, we’ve dealt with that problem before. And that vegetation looks just like it did at the last project.” So you can get pretty good at predicting it. It’s just a matter of knowing what, what goats are capable of. Now, we often use goat kids with the mothers. And, we’ll start in the spring with them. Because we think it’s important that those goat kids learn what to eat from their mothers. Each, each generation, we feel like we’re producing better and better brush goats. But they’re a real hassle, those kids, getting on and off trailers and slipping under fences and that sort of thing. And not only that, but they start as little tiny kids drinking mostly milk in the spring, and by mid-summer, now, how do we estimate how much they’ll eat relative to that vegetation challenge we were just called about by a customer? So that can be pretty challenging, but with a little bit of experience, we can predict pretty accurately.
Deborah Niemann 17:52
So I can definitely see the beauty of working with a mentor in this situation, which I… it’s always great to work with a mentor, even if you’re just getting pet goats. So, how do you work with your affiliates? Like, what do you do in the relationship?
Aaron Steele 18:08
Well, besides being able to use our brand, and getting a profile page in our directory on our website, our affiliates come to a training that we put on, and we hold a conference every year as well for all of our affiliates. So we’re not the only mentors. And when I say we, my business partner and I. We have a network of affiliates now, some of them have been with us going on four and five years, and have been in this business nearly as long as us now. And so they’re mentoring and training each other all the time. Which is, you know, honestly, was a bit of a surprise to me how much our affiliates seem to value that networking, and value being part of that tribe. And knowing that there are other people out there that they can talk to who might have just gone through the exhausting disastrous day that they did the week prior, you know? And so we actually have a Facebook group â€” a private Facebook group â€” in which our affiliates can quick ask a little question or, you know, ask a big question about a big problem and wait three weeks to see responses from other affiliates all over the country pile up and hear different experiences. So that’s turned out to be a really, a really neat part of our affiliate program.
Deborah Niemann 19:27
That’s really cool. And, um, so how do you work with your affiliates like financially? Because you’re, what you’re doing is very valuable, and I’m sure you’re shortening the learning curve by miles and miles.
Aaron Steele 19:42
Yeah, we like to tell folks who are interested in becoming affiliates that we’re, we’re going to start them at 60 miles per hour instead of zero, and really shorten that, that span between launch and profitability. So our affiliates, they look a little like franchisees â€” we are, we are not a franchise. Our affiliates, at it, at its core, are licensing our brand from us, and a bunch of our proprietary information. And included in that is they get access to our training. But the day-to-day operations of their business are determined entirely by them. So we, we provide lots of sample information about pricing structures, and how to operate, and logistics, that sort of thing. But ultimately, they decide how to take it and apply it to their unique situation in their business. So they pay us an annual license fee for that brand and that information. And there’s no commission on sales, like you might have in a franchise situation, it’s just an annual flat fee. And they get access to all of the benefits of our affiliate network.
Deborah Niemann 20:51
And then, when it comes to pricing with the goats, how does that… How do you price a job for… Like, what is somebody gonna pay you when you take your goats out there?
Aaron Steele 21:03
We typically charge by the acre. We… When we first launched, we were messing around with various formulas of, you know, so much per goat per day, plus the setup cost, and that sort of thing, and we just found that that was information overload for our customers. And we determined that ultimately, the risk of how much time this takes should be on us as the provider. And so, that’s why we’ve gone away from a number of goats per day type of charge. Instead, we, as we were discussing, you know, we estimate how long the project will take. And we charge a certain amount per acre to complete that project. So we have to be good at estimating because I think what surprises people is that this is a, a timed business. Yes, our goats are being fed while they’re on the project, but each day that that project extends, especially beyond what we estimated, has a cost to it. So we have a cost to visit the project site, we have a cost to visit with the customer, we have a cost in not getting on to the next project where we can earn some more money. So we, we definitely have to be good at estimating that and… But we just feel like that’s, that burden is on us as the service provider to deal with that doubt, and deliver to the customer a price that they know exactly what it’s going to be when the project’s done.
Deborah Niemann 22:28
That makes sense. I had heard about the dollars per goat per day. And that sounded very tricky to me. And also a little unsure, you know, that somebody might not have a great idea of what it’s going to cost them ahead of time, you know, because if the goats take longer to eat it. So your way sounds quite reasonable.
Aaron Steele 22:51
It is, um, it is intuitive, though, to think that your customer will want control over how much they spend and how long the goats are there. Because we do recognize that even though we’re providing a real valuable service, a big part of why people hire us is because it’s a lot more fun than some of the other alternatives. You know, having goats on your property for a little while is a blast. So we thought customers would want to say, “Well, I’ll take fewer goats, but I’ll have goats on my property for longer.” Or, “I’ll take more goats, get the project done faster, might cost a little bit more money,” and, and that they would want control over that. But what we found is that, this is an unusual business, and customers don’t really â€” even when they’ve committed to doing it â€” they don’t really understand the ins and outs of it. So if we throw more decisions at them like that, it’s typically not very helpful.
Deborah Niemann 23:42
Yeah, that totally makes sense. Because they know even less than you do about, you know, even if this is like your very first job, like you have a better idea of how fast your goats are going to eat than, than some person who just owns a piece of property.
Deborah Niemann 23:57
Now, it sounds like â€” I know I’ve heard some really interesting stories like O’Hare Airport in Chicago rented goats, the Seattle airport, Google, I think Yahoo… A variety, like so many different places â€” Arlington Cemetery â€” lots of famous places have rented goats, but you’re in Iowa, so I don’t know, I… Nothing super interesting jumps to mind, but have you had any really interesting jobs that you want to share?
Aaron Steele 24:24
Let me think… We have done… Well, nothing’s gonna stand out like Arlington Cemetery, you know, in, in our resume. But, I’ll tell you some of the more fun jobs we’ve done are where there are kids. So, we’ve done some elementary school projects and that sort of thing. And that turns out to be a… Not just a service being provided, but a whole educational kind of package. Because we often get opportunities to talk, these teachers will bring their kids out of the classroom and, and do like a mini field trip right outside next to the playground, you know? And we’ll get to talk about conservation issues, talk about what an invasive species is and why it matters, talk about the digestive system of a goat. How it ruminates, you know? And some of the â€” my favorite thing is to explain what rumination means to little kids, you know?
Deborah Niemann 25:17
Aaron Steele 25:17
They just think it’s super gross and super fun all at the same time. So yeah, that one stands out. We do, have started to do, powerline corridors recently. And those are really large tracts of land. And they they demand a different approach. So that’s been interested in as well. Yeah.
Deborah Niemann 25:37
Oh, that is really cool. So, I think you’ve done a really good job here of giving people a realistic idea of what this business is really, like. Do you have any last, final words of encouragement or warning or advice you want to give people?
Unknown Speaker 25:55
You know, I often talk to people who want to use a goat-grazing business as a transition out of that nine-to-five cubicle job, maybe even quit that corporate job and go start a farm. And they’re going to use the goat-grazing business as a way to quickly develop some revenue to support that, knowing that if they’re raising meat, eggs, producing milk, that sort of thing, it’s going to take a while for those things to start to produce. And, what I tell those folks is that the learning curve of goats is enough at once, you know, goats will find every flaw in your plan and exploit it. And so, I tell them, “Let’s learn about goats first. Then come back to me, and let’s start a business.” But starting a business and starting with goats all at the same time is typically too much for people. So, I mean, there are some options for not actually having to own your own goats to run a goat-grazing business. But even then, one really needs to get some hands-on experience with goats for a while before attempting to double up and use those goats as a tool in a business.
Deborah Niemann 27:06
That totally makes sense. Now, if people want to get in contact with you, how can they find you?
Aaron Steele 27:12
Yeah, thanks for asking that question. The best way is probably just to go to GoatsOnTheGo.com. And you can see a directory of our affiliates, and contact me directly there as well, and learn about our affiliate program.
Deborah Niemann 27:27
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been really interesting, and I think everyone’s gonna find it really helpful.
Aaron Steele 27:33
Excellent. My pleasure. Glad to be here.
Subscribe to my weekly newsletter!
My weekly newsletter includes recipes and articles on homesteading, raising livestock, health, and gardening.