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Grazing a Path to a Brighter Future
Mary Powell was about to turn 50, and she was feeling frustrated with her day job, unchallenged, and unfulfilled. It would have been easy for her to get down in the dumps, but Powell isn't used to doing things the easy way.
She has always loved animals, and she dreamed of being a veterinarian when she was a girl. "I was told I was too stupid when I was a kid and I believed it," she says. "I regret that." Still, Powell always had animals in her life, and spent 30 years working in cow-calf operations and feedlots. "I'm a cowboy at heart," she says.
After going through a divorce, she earned an animal science degree from Kansas State University in 2000. Even with her degree and extensive work experience, however, she was repeatedly overlooked for promotions in the male-dominated cattle industry, and felt her gender was a factor. "It's not right, but it happens in agriculture, and it's going to happen for a while," she says. Eventually, she went to work for a game bird hatchery.
In 2012, Powell and a business partner entered into a joint venture, Ash Grove Goat Ranch, near Hunter, Kansas, in the north-central part of the state. "I had to learn that goats are not cattle," she says. "I've always been a cattle person." They currently have 100 does, seven bucks, and an ever-growing number of kids. One segment the business caters to is showing. "I'm building a good reputation for good-quality 4-H animals for the local kids," she says. "We've had five grand champions and six reserved grand, plus several rate-of-gain winners for the 4-H kids."
The big idea
With her milestone birthday approaching, Powell decided it was time to take control of her own destiny. After taking stock of her resources and talents, an idea came to her: She had goats, goats eat weeds, and people will pay to have weeds removed. "I just took charge of my life and decided I was going to be a business owner," she says.
I just took charge of my life and decided I was going to be a business owner.
Powell began researching and found several other people making money grazing their goats and doing weed control. For example, goats are used to clear brush to help the spread of potential wildfires in the West, and they are even used in nonburial areas of the Congressional cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Since her goats are housed on a drylot, they have to be fed year-round. Not only would this new business earn money, it would also save money since her feed costs would be reduced significantly. "We spend an awful lot of money feeding these animals out all year-round," she says. "It's tough to make a profit feeding this number of animals in a drylot situation." She estimates a savings of $5,000 per year in feed costs.
Getting the bank on board
Powell said she knew the weed control idea was a good one. "I just had to sell the idea to people," she says. "The first one I had to sell it to was my banker." He asked her to write a business plan, and she spent eight months doing research, gathering facts and figures, and pricing needed supplies and equipment. She also came up with an estimated cash flow including her personal and business budgets. "Everything comes out first for the business and what's left goes to my loans and personal bills," she says. "I live very frugally, and I had figured out what I had to live on."
The banker reviewed the business plan and talked to her about concerns like fencing and security for Powell and the animals. He asked her how she would respond to a variety of scenarios. He approved her for an $8,500 start-up loan and ongoing line of credit. Later, the banker told her that her loan came up at a review meeting at the bank. He explained her business idea, and one of the loan examiners said his parents raised goats and he knew they ate weeds, so he, too, thought it was a good business idea. Barnyard Weed Warriors was born.
Once the money was available, it was time to get to work. Powell invested in more than 1,700 feet of temporary electric net fencing and a solar charger, enough for a 2-acre area. She began using the fence in the drylot to get the goats used to it. It was an expense, but it should last around five years. "I'm in love with the temporary fencing," she says. "The goats honor it, and it works great." She already had access to a pickup and 28-foot trailer, which can haul around 80 goats to a job site. Powell also purchased solar lights to take on jobs.
The biggest expense her new venture will incur, however, is insurance. Powell says she is paying $1,200 per year for a $1 million liability policy. "Since I'm onsite 100% of the time, I should be able to prevent them causing any damage, but I do have to provide liability insurance in case the goats get out and eat somebody's flowers or something," Powell jokes. She says the insurance policy didn't know how to classify her business, so they placed her in the custom harvester category.
Since the liability policy didn't allow anyone to touch the goats, Powell also added a petting zoo policy, which costs $750 per year. She is required to install a handwashing station with soap and water, and signage about washing hands and staying away from the electric fence. While she's not technically running a petting zoo, she says people are attracted to the goats and always want to touch them, so that insurance coverage will help protect her in that regard. One way she plans to keep the public at bay is to keep a bottle baby or a mother goat with babies in a nonelectric pen separately from the working herd, so passersby can get their goat fix without coming in contact with the electric fence and disturbing the other goats.
On the job
Barnyard Weed Warriors booked its first job with the city of Ellsworth, Kansas, in March. Powell and her goats were hired to clear brome grass and some brush from an area that had once been a city dump. Because of sinkholes and debris sticking up out of the ground, it was impossible for the area to be mowed. The city wanted the goats to clear the area so workers could see the ground and clean it up safely.
Powell loaded 38 goats into the trailer (which was no small feat) and headed to Ellsworth. She was accompanied by three border collies, which help manage the goats and keep Powell company. Once the fence was set up and the goats were unloaded, Powell set up camp in the trailer. "I'm used to sleeping under the stars from my cowboy days, and I love an adventure," she says. A portable toilet and camp stove help make the trailer a little more comfortable. "I like to write, so once I get everybody set up and my camp gear up, I can sit back and relax and write. I'm going to be camped out and living the life of a gypsy, but I think I'm happier the way I am than most people are their whole lives having all kinds of things."
Since electricity wasn't available at the Ellsworth site (and likely won't be at most jobs), Powell charged several solar spotlights during the day and attached them to the side of the trailer. At the end of the day, she shone one inside to light her camp, and aimed the rest into one spot farther from the trailer. The goats gathered together to sleep in that spot. She also brought two 300-gallon, food-grade totes full of water for the goats. "I loaded water at home because water quality can change to the point where it would affect the goats," she says.
Being onsite all night with the dogs (and a gun) helps protect the herd from predators, and allows Powell to assist kidding does if needed. "I'll take the pregnant does with me, especially first-timers who are getting close, because I don't want them to have trouble when I'm not around," she says.
With the Ellsworth job under her belt, Powell and the goats are on to other work sites. They have 18 acres of poison ivy to clear for one upcoming job, and that's a time-sensitive chore. Powell says goats will only eat poison ivy until the leaves get shiny, so it's important to graze them after the leaves are at least the size of a quarter, but before they begin to shine. Since poison ivy is so tough, the goats may have to come back a second time.
Natural weed control
Hiring goats to clear weeds is an environmental no-brainer, Powell says. People who don't want to use herbicides can get great results with goats, without chemicals. She has bid on a job clearing poison ivy from a mountain bike trail. "People complained about the poison ivy, so they sprayed it, and then people complained about the spraying, so this is probably their best option," she says.
Goats are also good for cleaning up river banks, where herbicides could enter the water. Powell says goats won't eat cattails, which most people want left standing. Goats also don't like to get their feet wet, so they will stay on the banks and won't tromp around in the water.
Looking to the future
Powell's plan is to offer grazing services from April through October, or as long as temperatures are above 40°F. at night. If it gets colder than that and the goats are kidding, it would be difficult to keep the babies warm enough.
After researching several different options for what to charge, Powell has decided to go with a flat rate per job. Depending on the type of weeds and density, the goats may eat anywhere from .5-acre to 1 acre per day. She travels to potential sites to come up with estimates for each job.
With her calendar quickly filling up, Powell is feeling confident that quitting her day job and starting Barnyard Weed Warriors was the right choice. She says she will probably work a part-time job this winter during her off months, but she's hopeful that won't be necessary in future years.
"I'm not afraid to take chances," Powell says. "I'm 50 years old. I consider myself 25 for the second time. I've got a chance to live some dreams and I'm going to do it."
As an active member of Successful Farming's Women in Agriculture Facebook group, Powell has shared her goat-grazing aspirations from day one. There was so much interest from the women in the group that she offered to share her business plan with anyone interested in going into this business for themselves, and several women took her up on that offer. "I'm excited to see if anybody else follows me," she says. "You can start a business like this with just a few goats and grow it."
I've got a chance to live some dreams and I'm going to do it.
Barnyard Weed Warriors will likely stay about the same size for a couple of years, Powell says, and then if the business takes off, she'll expand. She would buy feeder goats in the spring, graze them all summer, and sell them in the fall to avoid having to feed them over the winter. "I'm anxious to see where I end up," she says.
Powell recommends that anyone interested in grazing goats should find a good mentor, and then go for it. "Don't be afraid of failure," she says. "I'm more afraid of not doing something I think I can do. You're not a failure if you try."