It’s a Jungle Out There!
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Pay attention to what your goats are browsing, dangerous plants are abundant.
by Jay Winslow We live on 42 acres of primarily hilly woodland. We have no pasture, so we feed our goats hay, take them for a daily walk, and let them browse for an hour or two while I do my evening chores. This routine worked well for seven years.
I have been aware of various plants toxic to goats — yew, boxwood, rhododendron, cherry leaves transitioning from green to brown, and lily of the valley. We have all of these growing around our house, but the goats are fenced off from them, and I wasn’t aware of anything dangerous the goats could eat while browsing.
Last December, the goats took an interest in ferns for the first time after ignoring them. I didn’t think it was a good idea, so I tried to discourage them. I promptly checked online for plants toxic to goats and found bracken ferns listed. The ferns the goats were trying to eat were not bracken, so I thought other ferns were all right. Still, I wanted to discourage them.
One day, though, I had the goats out while carting firewood. I wasn’t paying attention to what they were doing for a matter of minutes, and then I realized they were eating ferns again. I stopped them and hoped it would be all right.
The next morning, Daisy was not well. She was drooling, grinding her teeth, trembling, and not eating or drinking. I thought she had an upset stomach from the ferns and that it would pass.
The next day, though, she was no better. I called my vet, and she recommended that I give Daisy some Pepto Bismol, which can calm an upset stomach and help to prevent the absorption of toxic substances. I went to bed hoping the Pepto would solve the problem.
In the morning, though, I went to the barn and found Daisy dead. I was very distressed that my carelessness for a few minutes had caused this tragedy.
For the rest of the winter, I ensured that Duncan, Iris, and the goat I adopted to replace Daisy never got near ferns.
In March, however, Duncan suddenly had the same symptoms as Daisy. I called the vet immediately, and she came over. She confirmed my worst fear that something Duncan ate in December could cause him to die in March. I hoped that maybe because it took months for Duncan to have symptoms, he might not have as severe a poisoning. The vet gave him some Pepto Bismol, and we hoped for the best.
The next morning, though, Duncan was dead. It was one of the saddest days of my life when I buried Duncan in the middle of a snowstorm.
I had to do something. I searched again online and finally found a post in a goat discussion group that stated unequivocally that all ferns are poisonous to goats. I realized that I would have to remove the ferns that grow along the mile or two of paths we walk daily. As soon as the ground thawed, I went out with my mattock and dug up over 100 ferns.
While I worked, it dawned on me that dozens of other species of plants lined the paths. I had no idea if the other plants were poisonous, and I didn’t even know what most of the plants were.
I had heard that plant-identification apps were available for my smartphone, so I downloaded a couple of them — PlantSnap and Picture This — thinking it might be wise to have two opinions. There are other good plant-identification apps, including one by National Geographic, and these apps are generally available free on a limited basis. Still, more features are available for $20 or $30 a year, particularly storage of all identifications for future reference, which is a good idea if you don’t have a photographic memory.
I experimented with PlantSnap and Picture This, and I found that Picture This was more accurate, so that’s the one I use now. It’s simple, quick, and easy. I open the app, press the button to indicate I want to take a picture, line up my shot, and press the shutter. The app automatically sends photo off, and within a matter of seconds, the identification comes back with lots of information, including the most common name, alternate names, Latin name, pictures of the plant to help confirm the identification, description, history, and more. Most important for my purposes, many identifications include information about toxicity. If that information isn’t included for some reason, it is easy to Google the plant and find out more.
I have identified more than 40 plants so far, and I’ve found plenty to be concerned about. A line of big shrubs the goats browsed for years turns out to be burning bush, or winged euonymus, all parts of which are toxic. The fern that killed Daisy and Duncan is Christmas fern, so named because it remains green through Christmas and into spring. We have two other ferns to worry about, too — sensitive fern and lady fern. Other poisonous plants include honeysuckle, black walnut, catalpa, English walnut, sassafras, and periwinkle. In the good-news department, Japanese stiltgrass, autumn olive, eastern cottonwood, oriental bittersweet, and wineberry are all edible. Now that I know something about the plants we pass every day, I know places to avoid, plants to remove, and leaves to pick up in the goat pen.
A plant-identification app is a small investment that will help you know what is growing around you. Knowledge is power, and knowledge will help keep your goats alive.
Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.