Some ranchers report great weed-control results with a complementary mix of grazing animals
Grazing a pasture with more than one species of animal offers several advantages. For one thing, a mix of different dietary preferences and grazing behaviors results in greater plant utilization; that means heavier stocking rates and increased production from a unit of land. Plus, it helps maintain a better ecological balance among plant species.
In fact, some range managers feel the increase in invasive weeds on public rangelands today is a result of fewer sheep numbers the past three decades or so. And, some land-management agencies are contracting with goat owners for weed/brush control in certain areas.
Another plus is that some plants toxic to cattle can be safely eaten by other grazing species. Sheep, for instance, can be herded ahead of cattle where tall larkspur is a problem, thereby grazing and trampling those patches to reduce cattle losses.
For the past decade, Bonnie Jensen, Salmon, ID, has used her goats for weed-control contracts with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation and others. Her 750 does produce 1,200 kids/year.
“When a contract comes up, I do a walk-through to see what’s involved, then submit a bid, just like a spray contractor would do. Most of these jobs go through the Cooperative Weed Management Association,” Jensen says.
Most of her projects target leafy spurge, but a few involve knapweed. In California and Nevada, some folks use goats for brush control to create firebreaks, she says. Goats also help control yellow star thistle.
“On large projects, I transport most of my does and kids in a cattle semi or a 24-ft. double-deck stock trailer, which can haul 250 yearlings or 150 does and a few kids,” she says. “Goats love spurge, which is about 28% protein; knapweed is about 21%. They’re both excellent feed for lactating does or growing yearlings.”
Goats and bugs
Even with recent government budget-cutting, the agencies still try to use goats. Some projects combine goats and biocontrol (insects that eat particular plants).
“The goats and bugs eat most of the summer growth and prevent seed production. By stressing the plant (eating on it) there’s better chance of killing it. The bugs can actually kill the plant but my goats stress it to where it’s easier to kill. In five years, you’ll see a huge difference. Some of the most effective control is accomplished by using spray, goats and bugs,” Jensen explains.
Spray alone is less effective because some seeds in the ground don’t germinate one year but may grow the next, she adds. Plus, goats can be taken into steep areas inaccessible to spray equipment.
“Many of the places I’ve gone, you’d have to use horse sprayers; in some areas, I can’t imagine taking a horse. My goats can climb places I don’t want to walk; it’s safer to use the goats,” she says.
On new projects, she delivers the goats herself the first year to ensure it’s done correctly and to assess the challenges. “If I need to make adjustments or rebid, I can,” Jensen says; she hires seasonal herders to handle continuing projects.
Most of her herders are ranchers’ daughters who want to spend a summer out with their horses before going to college. “They’re good hands because they know how to work livestock and know about range. Some come back and work subsequent summers before moving on to something else,” she says.
The herder travels with the goats, using horses, herding dogs and guard dogs, but doesn’t stay with them at night. “Ranchers near spray projects often let us build a net-fence night pen on their place. The goats are locked up for the night and the herder goes home and returns the next morning.”
For distant projects, the pen is built in a central location where the herder has access by vehicle and stays in an RV trailer, traveling to town for supplies and groceries.
“It’s not a hard job. You’re out with the goats 10 hours/day, but if you like to be outdoors, it’s a great summer job. And, goats are much easier to pen up than cattle,” Jensen says.
Spurge & knapweed
Shannon Williams, Lemhi County Extension agent (Salmon, ID), started a project several years ago to study if goats could control knapweed.
“We did three years of grazing trials with Bonnie Jensen’s goats at the University of Idaho Cummings Center to discover the best timing for grazing. We found the best seed reduction could be accomplished by grazing knapweed at bud to bloom stage,” she says.
Williams says goats have different grazing patterns at various phases of plant growth. At the rosette stage, they graze knapweed down to the last 2 in., then start looking for something else. But if you start them grazing at bud to bloom stage, the goats will go through the patch, strip off the seed heads, and then return to strip the leaves, leaving just stalks.
“This works best for controlling knapweed,” she explains.
With leafy spurge, goats eat the whole plant, eliminating seed production and spreading.
“We’ve had great success in our Carmen Creek project using goats and insects within our target area, and herbicides on the outside. We’ve kept spurge confined by doing this, and ranchers tell us grass is coming back into those areas,” she says.
The combination of goats and insects eventually kills the plants – and at a sufficiently low rate to allow grass rather than other opportunistic species to move in.
“The first year, because BLM had several biological control releases and didn’t want the insects’ mating season interrupted, we were asked to keep goats off certain areas. But in the areas we grazed, the bugs doubled in number the next year; I think grazing, by removing the old growth, made it possible for the bugs to get at the new tender growth.
“Plus, the insects were hitching rides on the goats. The bugs that eat leafy spurge don’t fly, so can’t move very far on their own; they used the goats to travel to their next meal,” Williams says.
Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.
Branching into goats
Bonnie Jensen herded sheep as a youngster, then worked on cattle ranches before marrying into a ranching family. She began raising goats as a way to augment cattle income.
“We needed compatible livestock that wouldn’t bring in disease but also would work with our facilities and feeding equipment,” she says. “My husband and I have done well using goats for weed control and meat sales.”
She searched for information about herding goats, since most people in the U.S. have pasture goats or dairy goats and no one herds them. “The best information I found was from Mongolia where nomad herders drive them on foot. I got my idea about night penning from them.”
Jensen says there’s a good market for fresh goat meat. “We send the heaviest kids in the fall to Sacramento, CA, with another load to Chicago just before Christmas,” she says. Goat meat is particularly popular in East and West Coast urban areas.
“Texas is our main competition. A lot of those ranchers run goats with their cattle for weed and brush control, but our breeding cycle is different. When we’re birthing our goats, they’re selling their kids. By November/December, Texas is out of kids and our northern herds fill the slot,” she says.