Bountiful • Greg Cover marched down the hillside whistling and grunting, “Heya, hey.”
“Come on,” he shouted. “Let’s go.”
Seconds after he reached the bottom of the dirt slope, 80 goats burst through the scrub oak behind him and tumbled onto the sidewalk. “There you are,” Cover said with a smile.
The animals had just finished eating the overgrown yard of one homeowner in this canyon community in southeastern Bountiful. And now Cover was herding them across the street to clear another. Since 2014, that’s become a large — and unconventional — part of his business, 4 Leaf Ranch.
Homeowners hire Cover to bring his goats to houses across Utah, particularly those with lawns that drift into steep, wild areas with tall cheatgrass and thick whitetop weeds. His furry fleet chows through the dense vegetation to create a break meant to keep a wildfire from spreading to any nearby structures.
He’s already seen a bump in calls this year, one of the driest in state record, with blazes burning from the northern border to the southern and fireworks season underway.
On Tuesday, Cover finished up at Shirley Faerber’s house, which has a one-acre backyard that roams up a dry, yellow foothill and a small front yard that was filled with trees and tangled ground-cover plants. At least, it was before the pack of goats came in. Now some soil is showing and the pines and scrub oak bushes are pruned up six feet from the roots.
“I haven’t been able to see between my trees for 10 years,” Faerber said with a laugh.
Fifteen years ago, a fire ripped behind her Bountiful neighborhood, scaring residents but ultimately leaving their homes untouched. She remembers watching the area from the evacuation zone and seeing the firefighters dot the hillside. “They looked like ants,” she said. “There was nothing I could do then.”
Faerber has lived in the house since 1990 and tried her best to maintain the property. The growth, she said, has just been too much to keep up with. So when she heard about Cover’s business from a coworker and got a $1,000 quote, she decided to give it a try.
She feels safer now and joked that maybe she should buy a few goats for upkeep: “They’ve been really cute to watch.”
It took four days for the pack of 80 goats and about 10 sheep to munch through the grassy overgrowth in Faerber’s yard and create a safe 150-foot buffer zone around her home. The larger animals can eat seven to 10 pounds of vegetation a day; the smaller ones eat five to seven pounds.
They’re like a lawnmower mixed with a backhoe with four legs that can climb slopes steeper than is safe for heavy-duty equipment. They also leave some of the roots so there’s less erosion.
“That’s a pain in the butt for man crews to do,” Cover said, tugging at his white and gray goatee — no, he did not grow it because of his job — and pointing to a goat he calls Long Ears.
“These goats are the most efficient worker you’ll ever see.”
It was a mostly overcast day but even at 9 a.m., the heat persisted. Cover’s two-man crew moved the fleet from Faerber’s house to her neighbor’s, who saw the men working and signed up for the targeted goat grazing.
Relocating between the two yards, though, came with a bit of bleating, a few chases and some cursing.
One rogue goat ran onto the porch next door. Five goats trotted up the street. The sheep stubbornly sat on the hillside and refused to move into the newly fenced off chute to clear the cheatgrass in the parking strip.
“A lot of people think this is an easy job,” said Terry Stanfill, a herder for 4 Leaf Ranch with a heavy Dallas accent. “This ain’t easy here.”
A neighbor standing nearby laughed and said they might as well try “herding cats.” But in less than 15 minutes it was done, and the hoofed bunch began plucking out leaves again and swirling the vegetation between their teeth. “Greg’s the goat whisperer,” added Robbie Mitchell, a loan-officer-turned-ranch-manager.
Cover’s business, which has 450 goats that stay in Kamas during the winter, is the only one of its kind in Utah. His employees work from 4 a.m. to midnight from April to November. They’re currently stretched over four projects, including an empty lot in Salt Lake City that will be used to launch fireworks this month. They finish about 100 in a year.
Next up are homes in Emigration Canyon and City Creek in Salt Lake County, where dense walls of vegetation sprout up on either side of the road.
Cover, whose leather boots are falling apart at the soles and whose Notre Dame hat is covered in mud, said the goal is simple: “If a fire comes, you’re pretty much safe.” He looked around the Bountiful neighborhood and at his goats.
Where the animals came from looked clean and cleared and landscaped. Where they were going to looked grassy and wild.