Natural Weed Control Good for Goats, Wallets

3/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Ann Wilmer Maryland Correspondent

WYE MILLS, Md. — Small farmers met with agriculture, natural resources and food scientists recently at Chesapeake College to learn about how goats and sheep can provide natural weed control.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore scientist and Extension specialist Nelson Escobar welcomed participants to the first in a series of small farm workshops to be held this spring.

“There is a monetary reward in raising sheep and goats,” he said.

The workshop was designed to show that the reward is not just in terms of meat and wool.

Some of the participating farmers have already found ways to use goats to manage unwanted vegetation, particularly invasive species, in both residential and recreational areas. Other farmers who herd sheep or goats were eager to learn how the animal’s natural inclination to eat certain plants could provide both healthy fodder for their animals and also help to control invasive species.

Nelson Dawson, associate agent with the Agriculture and Natural Resources Forestry Stewardship program at Wye Mills said invasive species cause $34 billion in damage each year.

Plants such as Phragmites and kudzu crowd out native species and insects that have co-developed with native flora. Neither mechanical removal nor herbicide is an option in hard-to-access areas or in areas where herbicides cannot be used.

Mary Bowen and Brian Knox, both goat herders, have been successfully using their herds to control unwanted vegetation for a profit for some time.

Knox, president of Sustainable Resource Management Inc. and the supervising forester for Eco-Goats, said he started out with goats as an experiment to help a long-time client deal with a multiflora rose problem. Now his goats do a number on invasive species from mid-April until December. He calls it “targeted foraging.”

Some of his clients include owners of private residential waterfront property, particularly properties with a steep slope. They have also worked on wildlife management areas owned by the Izaac Walton League. Because goats are perceived as a more natural control, they have great PR potential. People enjoy watching them work.

“Goats are herbicides on legs. They’ll eat anything (almost). Goats are strippers who will even remove tree bark,” Knox said, showing a slide of goats on their hind legs, pulling leaves off a tree. “Goats also like a lot of plants that deer don’t.”

Grazing goats is very labor intensive. Goats can usually strip one-third to one-half acre of weeds in four to five hours. Goats like privet, bittersweet, greenbrier and multi-flora rose, all of which are invasive species. But they will also eat sweet gum, oaks and tulip poplar that landowners would prefer to keep. The major challenge is to avoid damage to desirable vegetation, he said. Electric mesh fencing can be used to control where the goats work their magic but, every now and then, an adventurous goat becomes a jumper.

Goats are not a good solution for every job, but there are situations to which they are ideally suited. For example, Knox said that forest edges where invasive species are taking over are hard to mow. Goats can do the job. But goats don’t like to get their feet wet and, when they do, that can be a health problem for the herd. He strongly recommends working with a forester to plan the job.

“It’s best to raise them from birth because “Mom” teaches the kids what to eat,” Knox said.

A “swat team” of 30 can usually “weed” an acre in five to seven days. Goats are particularly effective at controlling nuisance weeds because they defoliate the unwanted plants, eliminate seeds and increase visibility in overgrown areas making it possible to use far less in the way of chemical controls.

Bowen, who runs a variety of livestock including beef cattle, maintains a herd of 75 goats that help to keep nuisance weeds under control on her spread. She also puts her Green Goats out for hire.

She said she always checks with the county Extension agent and NCRS to make sure her operation conforms to rules and regulations, particularly when taking her Green Goats to government lands.

One of her clients is a private golf course. Her goats make it possible for golfers to locate errant balls in the “rough.” From start to finish, a team of 13 goats can work the outskirts of the course in five days. She has also worked with a local historical society to clear sites that were untouched for years, uncovering abandoned farm implements and other artifacts.

“Foraging helps to raise grain-free goats,” she said, a consideration when the goats are slaughtered. “The goats also leave behind a natural, slow-release nitrogen fertilizer. Having them eat foods they would eat anyway helps to keep worms under control “

Bowen and her goats also work with Escobar to answer research questions, so they experimented with cattle panels as an alternative to electric mesh to control where the goats forage. She found the electric mesh easier for her “crew” of two adolescent children to handle, but suggested that there were situations in which the cattle panels would provide excellent herd control.

Andrew H. Baldwin, a researcher at Beltsville, has experimented with using goats to help control invasive Phragmites australis, an invasive plant that plagues the coastal marshes all around the Chesapeake Bay. The initial impetus was to restore bog turtle habitat, and he was inspired by grazing patterns he observed in Europe where livestock were allowed to wander into the edges of streams to eat unwelcome plants.

Baldwin set up a small study to determine if goats could help to control the invasive species without creating a nutrient load problem. His workers were the Beltsville goat herd, whose welfare was very important to other researchers on site.

Because the goats don’t like wet feet, they extended the paddocks into a dry area so they could get their feet dry. The goats were content to dine on the Phragmites, and Baldwin was content to measure the nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil and water in the test plots and the control plots that were left ungrazed.

Baldwin’s team learned that Phragmites quickly re-established itself in roughly two months, but he suggested that repeated applications of the four-legged weed-eaters could eventually eliminate the problem. He hoped to make room for native plants to re-emerge. Invasive plants modify the soil in ways that make it inhospitable to native plants. The results of his study will be published soon.

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