We received this question from some homesteaders in GA on a farm we visited in June in order to help them make some land-use decisions. The parcel — about 20 acres — comprised a home site with a lovely yard, house, and pool, and about 15 acres of impenetrable second-growth scrub forest draped everywhere with greenbriar, wild grapevine, and poison ivy. The previous owners, it turned out, had allowed loggers to clear cut and do no reclamation, and the result was a mess.

Our recommendation was to graze the understory in small increments, using their small flock of goats. As each small area was cleared of enough of the brush and vines that the owners could squeeze back among the trees (mostly only three or four feet apart), smaller and undesirable trees should be cut and pulled into the understory so the goats could graze the tree tops.

As the woods opened out, they should chip or burn whatever trunks/branches the goats didn’t eat and begin to make savannah pasture.

goats clear second-growth scrub to build savannah pasture

The results have been phenomenal. We share here some of their observations and new questions, and our answer:

The goats are working diligently to help us clear land. We are almost done with that whole 50 foot section of land behind the pool. The animals have effectively pushed back our useable land. We are going through now and cutting the baby/mid sized trees to start creating our savanna pasture. 

I wanted to get some advice about that bare ground and how to deal with it. Should we be seeding it with some sort of prairie mix? How should we deal with this new ground that now has exposure to sunlight?

 Hi, friends,

We are really excited to hear how well the goats are clearing ground. 

Your question is excellent.  To grow pasture in the areas you have cleared, we would recommend NOT planting seed, but creating favorable conditions for all the naitve seeds that are certainly in the ground there.  Seeds can lie dormant in the soil for a century or more waiting for the right conditions to sprout. 

Now that you’ve got sunlight on the soil, you need moisture and a little thin shade (to keep the ground from drying out).  When we have bare soil on our farm we feed hay on that spot; the cows manure the ground, tread in any grass or weed seeds from the hay, and leave enough scattered cover that the soil has some shade.  If for some reason we couldn’t bale graze there, we’d probably mulch lightly with some old hay/stable bedding/straw, or whatever we had around, and then just wait for the next rain.  I’d expect new growth pretty fast.  

Planting pasture is not a proven way to speed things up. The problem with planting pasture seeds is that the species you choose for that purpose don’t have a track record in that place.  You can plant them, but there’s no telling whether they’ll keep reseeding or keep spreading.  You might get some good growth in the first year, but no follow-through — because you chose the seeds you planted, but the plants that already have seeds in the ground are in that neighborhood are native or naturalized, that is, they likes the conditions and grow voluntarily. 

In addition, if you plant something — Italian rye and red clover, say — and it comes up, then you’ve put those species occupying the place of the native/naturalized species that you really want.  The planted stuff will use up a lot of room and water, leaving less for the native stuff that would try to come in.  Short version:  If you let nature give you what wants to grow there, you’ll be taking the fastest (and cheapest) route to good new pasture.