This is the secret life of weed eating goats. Imagine being trained to love a certain food. You start at home as a kid eating it with your mother. Later someone takes you, your mother, and all your friends through pastures, byways and hills guiding you to that food you love. This is your job.
Bonnie Jensen started out with about 350 Black Angus cows. She built up and worked the herd, but after a few years, she said, “I’d about had enough of it. I’d got run over and hurt enough that I decided, okay. Not for me.”
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Research and Readiness
Bonnie read an article about a woman in Colorado who was hired to take her goats to eat weeds in the parkways. Bonnie spent that winter researching. She discovered that goats like leafy spurge which presented a major noxious weed problem in her county. She contacted her local Agriculture Extension Office and talked with Shannon Williams, the Agriculture Extension Educator. Together they came up with a plan.
“I’d probably only been in the job two or three months when she came to me with the idea of buying a goat herd to graze noxious weeds,” Shannon told me. “We sat down and talked about it. I had basically zero knowledge of noxious weeds at that point. My learning curve was pretty steep. We did lots of research and then I was the technical support for her first SARE grant.”
SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research Education) grants help producers try new and innovative ways to be sustainable. They focus on profitability, stewardship of the land, and quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and their communities. Receiving the grant allowed Bonnie to do modifications to her existing cattle working facilities to allow for caring for goats.
Bonnie started out with a small herd of about forty cashmere goats. She chose cashmere because of their quiet, gentle temperament. If the weed business didn’t work out, she could still make money on their hair.
Through her contract with the Lemhi County Weed Control Agency, her goats needed to remove 90 percent of the leafy spurge with only 10 percent impact on the desirable plants. With a short season in which to accomplish that, she needed a lot more goats. She couldn’t find large numbers of goats to buy in the intermountain states, so she traveled to Texas and brought home a herd of Spanish and Savannah goats. She would discover that the breed didn’t matter when it came to eating weeds. They all ate the same amount once properly trained.
To train them, Bonnie first had to introduce them to the target weed. “We went out and actually cut some and gave it to them. We figured they were going to scarf it down like a bale of hay, you know.” But they didn’t; they nibbled at it a little and left it. She went back the next day and tried again. When figuring out what to feed goats, remember that goats need to be introduced to a new food slowly. Their rumen and liver need time to gear up to digest or detoxify compounds in the plants. They will wait after trying a new food to see if they get sick. If they don’t, try it again. Once they got used to it, they were hooked. It became their favorite food.
Bonnie discovered that the nutritional needs of nursing does made them even more likely to seek out the high protein found in leafy spurge. She timed their breeding so the kids were ready to go out on the range with their mothers as soon as it was time to be used as weed eating goats. In the fall she could sell the kids for meat to increase her profit.
In addition to working for the weed agency and several other jobs around the west, Bonnie worked with Shannon and the University of Idaho Research Center. Since no research existed to say whether weed eating goats would work on spotted knapweed, they did a three-year demonstration. They fenced the goats into separate plots with knapweed to discover when grazing would be the most detrimental to the plant and when the goats were most likely to eat it. They studied grazing at spring rosettes, bud to bloom, and fall rosettes. The studies showed the bud to bloom stage was the most effective but the goats alone weren’t going to be able to kill the spotted knapweed. The best they could do was reduce the amount of seed added to the seed bank of the soil. To work through that seed bank would take an estimated 15 years.
Herding with Dogs
When Bonnie first started, she read as much as she could about goats and noxious weeds, but she couldn’t find anything on how to herd goats. She had herded sheep before and figured it would be the same. It wasn’t. “A horse doesn’t intimidate them. Yelling at them, even crying doesn’t work. None of that. You’ve got to have some trained border collies: herd type dogs that can do trials, and that’s what controls your goats into making them a uniform working machine.”
Dogs trained for rigorous competitions called trials do not come cheap. Bonnie bought the failures — dogs not quite up to snuff for the competition. She still paid $1,500 to $3,000 per dog. She needed three dogs per herd of 500 nannies and their kids — two to work the herd and a relief dog. With three herds she needed nine of these specialized herding dogs.
She also kept two guardian dogs with each herd to deter predators. Llamas, donkeys, and some breeds of dogs can all be raised or trained to adopt a herd as their own and will go to great lengths to protect them from predators. Dogs work best on open range or in large pastures, while llamas and donkeys are most effective in fenced pastures smaller than 300 acres. Bonnie’s original llama retired to the ranch to guard older nannies or those that had late kids.
Targeted Grazing as a Business
The business of weed eating goats presents more challenges than standard goat farming. Goats must be transported to and from project sites. Moving animals to an unfamiliar place can add stress and reduce intake or make the goats more susceptible to disease or toxins from accidental ingestion of poisonous plants for goats.
A higher level of monitoring is required to document how the vegetation is responding to grazing. This requires well-trained attentive workers who can put in long days. Such workers can be hard to find. Bonnie hired local ranch girls who wanted summer jobs riding their horses.
Weed eating goats are often used with other weed control methods. During the time that Bonnie’s goats were eating the leafy spurge, the BLM was working with insects for biological control. They provided her with GPS points of all the places where they were trying to get the insects established and asked that she not graze there. They missed a couple of sites and her goats ate the weeds in them. When the BLM went back to monitor the sites they found the insect populations had grown much more in the grazed than the ungrazed areas.
It Was an Adventure
Eventually Bonnie’s goats ate themselves out of a job. She bought her first goats in 2000 and sold her last herd in 2016. “It was a grand adventure,” Shannon Williams recalls. “Like I said, I started this job with no knowledge of noxious weeds because they hired me to work with beef cattle and 4-H which I was comfortable with. And so my learning curve was pretty much straight up. Bonnie and I had some wonderful adventures.”
The paper Shannon and Bonnie wrote on the management of goats for controlling noxious weeds https://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/CIS/CIS1121.pdf
More information about using goats for weed management http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/rx-grazing/Handbook.htm
More information about grants for agricultural research and education https://www.sare.org/Grants/
All photos by Bonnie Jensen