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Goats Advocated as Environmentally Sound Brush Control

 

News from
Texas A&M University

By Robert Burns, Texas A&M Staff
August 14, 2006

STEPHENVILLE – Got brush? Want to use less herbicides to control it? Need to preserve native species of legumes and native grasses?

Consider bringing in the goats, said Dr. Jim Muir, a forage ecologist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

Many goat owners use their animals to control brush on their own land, but there is a business opportunity for goat owners to hire their herds to control undesirable plants on others' land, Muir said.

"The problem many landowners have is ... taking out a lot of brush that they don't want," Muir said. "They want to open up their land. And in order to do that biologically, in other words without using too many herbicides or artificial means, we can use goats."

Goat owners are already doing so in other states, Muir said, but to his knowledge, it just isn't being done in Texas.

"There are landowners who use their goats to control brush, but none of them that actually hire their animals out to do that," he said. "And the purpose of our work is to facilitate or to encourage that approach."

Several hurdles to using goats to control brush include predators, landowner misconceptions and potential risks to the animals' health, he said.

Funded by a $178,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education program, Muir hopes to clear these hurdles. But the highest hurdle, he admitted, is educating goat owners and landowners and land managers that commercial brush control using goats is a viable option.

"For Texas it's a new concept, and that's why we got the SARE grant," he said.

Since goats readily eat many undesirable plants – green briar, sumac and poison ivy, for examples – landowners may reason that the goat owner should pay them to use their land, that they are in effect feeding the goats. But it's not so simple, Muir said.

To effectively control undesirable plants, the goats must be left on the area long enough to eat plants they ordinarily wouldn't. This kind of grazing management entails a health-cost to the goat – less weight gained over time or even loss of weight – that they would realize under optimum grazing management, Muir said.

Lighter animals equals a cost to the goat owner, in terms of meat sales or lower fertility rates, he said.

Also there's higher management costs. Goats require better fencing and protection from predators. And they can't just be turned into an area and left. If they get too hungry they may eat poisonous plants, he said

"So there is a cost to the goat owner and benefits to the landowner. But we have to show them that."

The benefits to the landowner are many, though cost isn't one of them, Muir said.

"There are cheaper ways or less expensive ways to control browse than to use goats without question," he said. "Backpack herbicide spraying is probably less expensive in the long run. But if you are interested in doing things in an environmentally sound way, then goats may be one way to do that."

Using goats could also preserve native plants and legumes of Central Texas, Muir said.

In the last decade, Central Texas has experienced an influx of urban homesteaders buying small acreages as a place to retire or as a weekend retreat. These people, which Muir calls "urban refugees," more often want to restore their rangeland with native species.

Blanket herbicide treatments kill these native species along with the undesirable plants. But goats, contrary to popular conception, are picky eaters, and more likely to eat the green briar than rare species such as the velvet bundle flower or tropical neptunia, he said.

Managers of public parks and utility right-of-ways also might want to use goats to control brush, Muir said. Although used as labeled, modern herbicides are safe to use and pose little risk to human health, public perception is that they are not.

Use of goats to control brush in other states is a way to build credit to a community wary of herbicide usage next to schools, housing divisions and public areas, he said.

Muir emphasized that using goats to control brush does not exclude the use herbicides to clear land. Mature plants are harder to control with herbicides than new growth, however, and their management is a job done better by goats than chemicals, he said.

"They (the goats) weaken the plants is essentially what they do," he said. "They very rarely take the plants out completely, but they weaken them enough so the landowner can come in and control the plants either with spot spraying with herbicides or cutting out the plants with a machete or some other means."

In the first year of the study, Muir has developed grazing schemes and tested various means of predator control. The next stage of the study, he said, is to partner with an agricultural economist to develop budgets and business plans for goat owners who want to hire out their animals.

In a separate study, Muir is investigating means of controlling some of the more problematic goat health issues, such as parasitic nematodes.