Not long after the start of the school year in 2017, Cal Poly students were already evacuating from their residence halls. A fire was burning near The Cal Poly P.
But the fire stopped before it hit the residence halls thanks in part to Cal Poly’s goats.
Cal Poly’s goats graze on campus for numerous reasons, one of which is to create a firebreak as a buffer, giving defensible space in case a fire threatens the school, according to animal science lecturer Beth Reynolds. Reynolds manages the Sheep Unit and Goat Enterprise.
The main breed of Cal Poly’s goats is Kiko, Reynolds said. The goats are selected for being healthy, good moms and good eaters.
Dairy goats would “almost be starving” if put into these goats’ situation, according to Reynolds. Cal Poly’s goats, which are meat goats, are aggressive foragers, meaning they go after food, she said.
There are currently around 50 goats at Cal Poly, according to Reynolds. Most of them are female, and around 50 more goats will be born in February.
Many students work with the goats, including the goat section of Animal Production and Management Enterprise (ASCI 290).
Animal science senior Monica Folgar has served as a student manager for Cal Poly’s Sheep Unit, which includes goats, for three years.
“I think having sheep and goats provide that stepping stone to helping other students develop and build more confidence in working with livestock,” Folgar said.
Most of the goats have names, usually tied to the way they look or behave, according to Reynolds.
One goat, Donkey, is named for having the coloring and coat of a donkey, Folgar said. Another, named Quad Mom, produces quadruplets every year, and a third, Speckles, is spotted, according to Folgar.
“I really enjoy their different personalities and different cliques that they have within the herd,” Folgar said.
Using goats for fire prevention is not unique to Cal Poly
“I think it’s becoming more common practice,” animal science sophomore and Sheep Unit student manager Georgia Jellen said. “There are a lot of different larger operations with thousands of animals that are going through larger areas.”
In October, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley was threatened by a fire, but saved in part by a firebreak created by goats, according to USA Today. And more than a thousand goats work to help prevent wildfires in Laguna Beach, according to ABC News.
“I think every time there’s a really big fire event that people start to think about it some more,” Marti Witter, a fire ecologist with the National Park Service, said about using goats.
But she said people need to understand success with goats depends on what people want the goats to eat. The goats know what they want to eat, but it is not necessarily the plants people want them to eat, according to Witter.
Witter said goats do a great job is in mature chaparral, which can be found at Cal Poly, with a dense understory that they thin out below, leaving a canopy.
Currently, the Cal Poly firebreak goes from around the Avila House to the back of Poly Canyon Village, according to Reynolds.
“Right along the backside of the residence areas — PCV, Cerro, the dorms — is this huge hill with a huge amount of fuel. So that’s really important,” Jellen said.
The project’s main focus is reducing fine fuels, such as dry leaves and grass, which ignite quickly and lead into denser fuels, Reynolds said. Goats eat the fuel, whereas mowing and weed waking leaves the fuel on the ground.
Around 30 goats graze alongside 26 sheep when creating the firebreak, Reynolds said. The goats, who “get kind of bored” eating a bunch of layers of grass, eat weeds, brush, parts of trees and some grass, while the sheep help clean up the grass, she said.
Ideally, the firebreak would stop a fire, as the animal impact makes the area less likely to ignite, according to Reynolds. But even if it does not, it makes it easier for firefighters to do their jobs.
The amount of fuel is reduced so the fire does not burn as hot, which potentially reduces how quickly it spreads, Reynolds said. In addition, since the plants are lower to the ground, the fire is slowed down, giving firefighters defensible space so they can battle it while it is at their ankles rather than hips, she said.
During the project, goats are in a concentrated area, moving every three to four days, Reynolds said. They go between more than 36 pens to ensure that they clear the vegetation uniformly and get it down short enough.
“If you gave them a whole area, like 30 acres, and let them just roam around, you’re gonna have patches where they didn’t really get into it or corners they never really went,” Reynolds said.
This form of prevention invigorates the plant community and stimulates regrowth. It also creates a varied product, Reynolds said.
It also benefits the animals, as it provides them food, Jellen said.
It typically takes the animals around three months each year to make the firebreak, beginning right after spring commencement in June and ending in September, Reynolds said. However, this year the project went until October.
“Grazing in general I think is a great opportunity to manage vegetation better, and I think there should be more of it,” Reynolds said. “I mean definitely with the fire hazard. There’s definitely a lot of interest in having more grazing going on.”
The fire department has now stated that managed grazing can be an effective tool to reduce the risk of fire, according to Reynolds.
Throughout the rest of the year, the goats graze at various locations on campus, including the Beef Unit, the veterinary clinic and some of the creeks, Reynolds said.
They control invasive weeds and make things look pretty, according to Reynolds. This off-season grazing is not as intensive as the firebreak project — the goats are in larger pens, moving locations less often and not taking the vegetation down as low, Reynolds said.
Life as a goat
Being a goat at Cal Poly does not just consist of eating. They are smart — and mischievous, according to Reynolds. Some of the goats learn to get out when the electric fence that surrounds them is turned off.
On one occasion, the goats got out of their pen and made it to the third level of a parking structure in Poly Canyon Village. A few times, they have climbed up to The Cal Poly P, Reynolds said.
Reynolds said she usually goes to them with her herding dog, or students bring a bucket of grain or rocks, which the goats think is grain, and they follow, she said.
“They usually know they’re in trouble, so they kind of are expecting us to show up, and then cooperate,” Reynolds said.