Craig Madsen, Member Spotlight, May, 2013
By Jacqueline Cramer
I spoke with Tilth Producers member Craig Madsen, owner of Healing Hooves LLC, about his goats, shepherding, and his overall business. Craig lives in Lincoln County, travelling around Washington with his herd, putting them to work for vegetation management and to reduce fire risk.
How long have you been operating Healing Hooves?
I am in my eleventh year. I started in 2002. I was worked as a Range Management Specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service for 14 years prior to starting the business.
Why did you make the change?
I was no longer enjoying the work. Starting in 1996, I was a participant in the four year WSU/Kellogg Foundation project. It introduced me to the concepts of Holistic Management, which led to my looking at my life in a holistic context. Together with my wife, we made a transition to focus our time at home (she started her own home-based business). I attended a workshop in Wyoming on using goats for weed management. Being familiar with vegetation and range management, I felt it was a natural next step.
Do you have a background in farming?
I grew up on small farm with beef cattle. I didn’t know much about goats and spent time learning. Life with goats is different than life with cows, which are merely grazing and give beef as your output. You move your animals on their own pastures. My work is extending animals as tools for the vegetation work, grazing them on our own pasture, and taking them to other peoples’ pastures. It has challenges. I am away from home for several months as I stay with the goats.
What is the work like?
I do a range of projects and rotate the animals around the state in summer and fall. Before writing a proposal, I do a site evaluation. We do projects for owners with a variety of goals: from controlling weeds and brush to knocking back blackberry bushes. A combination of weeds, browse and grass is the best for the goats. Timing of the moves also depends on the site: western Washington can be too wet for goats at some times of the year. A lot of rain is not their favorite thing.
In shepherding on a daily basis, I move the goats around at appropriate times. I stay with them a majority of the day, sometimes leaving to run an errand or get groceries. Most of the time I’m on-site, managing the herd and making sure they are in the right place. A good shepherd will stay with the animals and notice if they get out. People might think the mistakes are the goats. But it is the people who manage the animals that make mistakes. The shepherd needs to know their abilities and the challenges of the sites.
The principles are the same as mowing. You don’t mow your yard once. In managing the vegetation, you do it more than once a year. We do a slope for Seattle Metro twice a year that has not gone back to black berries. We are essentially like a mowing team.
Not all is accomplished with the goats. For example, on the west side with ivy and goats it’s only one step in the process. You can take out blackberry foliage with goats, but you must consider what comes next. Goats do not remove roots – you need to continue to remove the re-growth. Otherwise it takes three years or so if repeated. A person who manages a goat herd on their own land has the advantage of being able to apply their animals as tools on site at the best time.
How about using pigs for the roots?
Some people do it like that; an old timer shared his experience of just that with me. Joel Salatin’s work describes using pigs. It is specific to the spot. I could see it very easily on a farm, using animals as the tools.
Have you done research on shepherding and what others are doing?
A large goat producer in the in Tri-Cities area hires Peruvian herders, and sheep producers still hire shepherds. Few people want that lifestyle.
Have you done networking with others who do similar work?
I have done some networking and paired with others. I have 250 goats with both does and kids. I pair with another herder who has 150 goats to work in the Issaquah Highlands. We have worked together on that project for several years. In two weeks we herded 400 goats in the Issaquah Highlands. In western Washington the steep slopes combined with high rainfall make for areas where people won’t go. Plus the wages are costly, requiring weed whackers and raking. Goats do the work no one else will do.
Where do you do your work?
I bring the goats to the Seattle area and also to other municipalities. I have done work in Portland and Idaho. I have done work for farmers in the Columbia basin, helping an organic producer to manage weeds. It is becoming more common as people do it and see it around. The big push started in California, and a fair amount is still done there, where it is used more to reduce fire risk (than control weeds). I have done similar fire risk reduction work in Worley, Idaho.
More people are seeing goats as a tool to manage vegetation: weeds, fire risk, vineyards and crops. Goats’ impact on the soil depends on the timing of the project. Goats and sheep are light; they can create trails, and allow recovery time for soil and plants. We look at timing of the weeds you are trying to deal with, conditions of the soil and the desirables you want in a specific situation.
How do city codes affect your business?
There are ordinances against having livestock on property, but our use of goats is seen as a tool. We are not there long, so they see it as a tool. It is not an issue now.
How did you get your first project?
I met a Wyoming shepherd who runs 2000-3000 goats throughout the states when I went to her workshop. Someone from Leavenworth Fish Hatchery called her, and she referred them to me. I used 60-70 goats on that project. My rig now hauls 250 at a time. They get used to moving. Move day is a long day, and I set up my own fences with a lot of electric netting. Electric netting was only questioned in Seattle.
Do you have to beat the bushes for jobs now, or do they come to you?
I do have to do a little marketing so people will come to me. The website brings people to me. When I first got started, media was always there in the I-5 corridor. It brought a lot of awareness that there are other tools to manage vegetation. King County Metro first contacted me, but then it was a sales job to sell to the managers. Once they used it they were happy with the service. We are really effective on the sites with difficult access, and Metro has plenty to do.
On the first job that I worked on with the Seattle Parks Department there was muttering among some of the grounds crew that they could lose their job. We did one aspect of the job, using the goats as a primary tool. We bring in the goats for the initial treatment to get the plants knocked down, and next they use staff or volunteers to bring in new plants to shade out the blackberry.
What do they eat at home?
I supplement with hay in winter. In fall and spring they are on pasture. If I were further south, I could get away with less hay.
How big is your farm?
CM: I started working with neighbors, trading weed eating for land and a barn. Then we bought 60 acres three miles away from home. We keep a few on our 2 acres at home for vegetation control, and have a pen to separate out the big neutered males, who whack on the does if kept in the same barn. When we start kidding in early March I check on them three times a day. I sell goats in the fall.
How do you find the markets in the fall?
I sell them as live animals to a buyer.
Can you talk about one of your greatest struggles as a farmer?
When I started, the greatest challenge was finding the work, and making connections. Now it is still some struggle in the marketing. The hardest part was where to begin. It’s a harder sell in eastern Washington, making initial contacts. Publicity helped. Other difficulties include high transport costs for the west side projects, and figuring out what to charge. Comparing to alternative methods and figuring out rates, considering slopes and soil, people are more expensive than the goats.
Can you talk your greatest successes as a farmer?
Being able to create a profitable business. People say you don’t make money with goats, because they are thinking about the meat. Their hay needs in winter can be too expensive. This is another option, doing it at a lower cost.
Looking at the weed management side of things, we don’t say eradication or control: it really is management. Eradication is almost an impossibility. Farmers and ranchers have an opportunity to use goats in their pastures. If you use them, you do have to consider the complications of fencing and the predators. Goats and sheep eat the weeds and they are high quality forage. You can make money on the weeds, yet there are costs. Fences that will hold cattle will not hold goats or sheep. There are a lot of considerations. Holistic management helps with decisions because you are always considering the triple bottom line.
What advice would you give to new farmers in your area or shepherds?
Really understand what you want to accomplish and your quality of life. What are you willing to do to create your quality of life? Think about all aspects of making a decision to make a living from the land. Consider Holistic Management and evaluate the triple bottom line (social, environment and financial) to see what it would take to make it work. Understand the commitment to each aspect and evaluate, like finances and social aspects. For example I needed to consider being away from home four months of the year. Understand where you are and opportunities to create a successful business
Why are you members of Tilth Producers?
Networking is some of it. Also, I am involved in Managing Change Northwest – with Maurice Robinette- being a member of both is a marketing, educational opportunity.
What more would you like to learn?
Marketing is one of the biggest challenges. My wife is going to work on the farm more so we are thinking about more direct marketing of goat meat, trying to broaden our revenue channels and understand the direct marketing process.
Who have been your inspirations?
Holistic Management and Allan Savory’s work. It helped push me in the right direction to look at what I wanted to accomplish and change my life; to transition from a federal agency to small business and making it successful. That was big push.