Goats, sheep work as lawn mowers on Sacramento County landfill

Several hundred brown and white goats, including a few spindly-legged kids, grazed lazily on a grassy hillside one day last week. It was a pastoral scene, but for the 250-foot pile of garbage 18 inches beneath the goats’ hooves.

The ruminant livestock were the last workers on a job that has occupied 2,400 sheep and goats since Feb. 18: clearing vegetation overgrowth from 250 acres of Kiefer landfill. Owned by Steven Gregory of Gregory Livestock, the herd was an affordable, environmentally friendly way for the county to clear weeds that can become a fire hazard and trip up workers who traverse the landfill’s rolling hills to measure methane emissions, said Sacramento County solid waste planner David Ghirardelli. The animals have worked annually at Kiefer since 2012 and are contracted to work at the landfill until 2016.

“The first year, we had to throw an enormous number of animals at it, sheep and goats, because there was a fair amount of woody vegetation that had grown up,” Ghirardelli said. “But it worked beautifully, and there were all kinds of additional benefits.”

Among those benefits is substantial savings. Ghirardelli said it would have cost the county $300 an acre to do the job mechanically; the livestock cost half that. They also emit less carbon and don’t damage delicate equipment that pipes methane from the decomposing garbage to the landfill’s on-site power plant. And they don’t seem to mind living in a dump.

Gregory said he was skeptical about taking on the job when Ghirardelli first called. The herdsman was concerned about the terrain, constant mechanical activity and potential health risks for his animals. He wasn’t the only rancher to feel that way.

“I must have called 25 ranchers, and I felt kind of sheepish, no pun intended, because at a certain point I had to explain to them that it’s a landfill,” Ghirardelli said. “They’d say, ‘I don’t want my sheep running around a landfill.’ ”

Gregory said the sheep and goats have had no major health problems since starting the job this year. A rancher lives in an on-site trailer to care for the animals, set up fencing around their grazing areas and provide water. The landfill provides nearly all their food, but Gregory does give them a protein supplement.

The grazers are all female and gave birth to kids at the landfill in the spring. After they grow up, the male goats are slaughtered for meat and could end up at the dinner table of a household that sends its refuse to Kiefer landfill.

“If the grass is burned or mowed, we’re burning fuel to cut down something that could have been utilized for livestock production,” Gregory said.

Jim Oltjen, an animal management systems expert at UC Davis, said this type of grazing project is becoming more popular across the West. California is particularly well-suited for the practice because it’s home to the second-largest sheep population in the U.S.

“Say Cleveland or somewhere back in that part of the world, there’s probably not too many flocks,” Oltjen said.

Throughout California and Nevada, grazers are often used to eliminate fire-prone grasses in remote areas. Elsewhere in Sacramento County, the grazers have been employed at regional parks to handle delicate “mowing” jobs. Liz Bellas of the Sacramento County Regional Parks Department said goats and sheep are munching overgrowth at a site where mowing would have destroyed Native American artifacts. The livestock are taking care of business and winning fans.

“People are happy to see them out there,” Bellas said. “They get all warm and fuzzy.”