Using Small Ruminants to Improve Forage Availability in Michigan Equine Pastures

Final report for FNC16-1050

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2016: $6,543.00
Projected End Date: 01/30/2018
Grant Recipient: Arbor Meadow
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Arbor Meadow Farm is located in Grass Lake, Michigan on 189 acres of rolling pasture, timber and marsh. Multiple generations have been breeding pure bred Shetland ponies since 1944, pure bred Arabians since 1955 and cross bred sport horses and sport ponies since 1982. The horses and ponies enjoy a unique natural habitat which includes seven artesian wells which flow and provide fresh water year round. The family goal has always been to breed horses and ponies of high quality and generous temperament to excel in a variety of disciplines for amateurs and professionals. The extended family includes two daughters attending college, with one studying pre-vet/animal science. The family is interested in investigating avenues to diversify the farm operation to include the next generation for years to come. In addition, the family is excited about the possibility of exploring a new business opportunity that may allow for a more complete and efficient use of the land based resources.

Summary:

May 12, 2016 the goats arrived at my farm from Nebraska.  All fifteen goats arrived healthy and rested.  May 13, 2016 I began transitioning the herd, all does, to the test areas set up to acclimate them and me to our new adventure.  May 22, 2016 I transitioned the goats to the 3 acre study plot.  The goats grazed and browsed the study plot until mid September.  During that time the goats were weighed every 3 weeks, they received needed vaccinations, their hooves were trimmed and a buck was introduced on June 14 and lived with does until August 3.  September 14, 2016 we held a brief talk on the project and took the 30 participants on a pasture walk to highlight the accomplishments of the project.   The beginning of December the goats started living in their winter paddock and started eating a diet of hay and corn.  They were ultra sounded to confirm if any were pregnant.  None of the does were pregnant.  The buck was brought back in on Jan 3, 2017 and lived with the does until March 1, 2017.  May 2017 through June 2017 22 kids were successfully born to 14 does.  Does with their kids returned to browsing the study area once the kids were about 3-4 weeks old.  The study area had a reduced amount of regrowth to browse and was eaten through in about 30 days.  The does and kids moved on to larger areas on the farm and continued browsing until the end of October 2017.  During this time period they successfully cohabitated with a small group of Shetland ponies.  Beginning in November a selection of kids and does were marketed to the public and sold through through the Michigan Livestock Auction in Manchester, Michigan.  Prices ranged from $1.17 to $2.39 per pound at the auction and $2 – $2.70 a pound sold through private sale.  15 of the 22 kids born were sold.  Four of the original does were sold and one of the original does needed to be euthanized.  The current herd size is 17 and are all does.  The group presented information on the study at five educational talks with agricultural groups in Michigan and Minnesota in 2017.  Several people requested private tours of my farm and were able to walk through the study area.  The goats have been a useful addition to my farming operation and we will continue to use them to control invasive species and clear areas that would be beneficial to my horses.

 

 

Project Objectives:
  1. To increase forage availability in equine pastures by using goats to control undesirable species;
  2. To investigate a biological method for controlling undesirable plant species while protecting natural habitat by avoiding chemical method of control;
  3. To evaluate the possibility of creating a business opportunity in the goat market to diversify farming operation;
  4. Exemplify and expand use of land base resources

-Goats may play an active role in eliminating the Autumn Olive and Multiflora Rose growing in pastures as well as other potential toxic plants known to equine pastures.

-Improve forage availability in horse pastures to allow for longer grazing season and reduce hay input costs.

-Obtaining small ruminants to control undesirable plant species on the farm may in turn create a business opportunity in the goat meat industry that will ultimately diversify the operation and expand the use of established land base resources.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Thomas Guthrie
  • Dr. Judith Marteniuk
  • Michael Metzger

Research

Materials and methods:

 For materials and methods see the Michigan State University Extension article at: http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/using_goats_to_improve_forage_availability_in_equine_pastures and poster: 2017-ESS-POSTER-FNC16-1050 

Research results and discussion:

Accomplishments

  1. Finding a single source from which to purchase goats that were educated browsers.
  2. Acclimating the goats to their new home, acclimating the resident horses and ponies to the goats and educating students and staff in the care and keeping of the goats.
  3. Day-to-day goat management.  My biggest goal, keeping the goats healthy, safe from predators, alive and thriving.
  4. Organizing and setting up the study plot.
  5. Implementing a breeding plan.
  6. Presenting our results in educational programs and field demos. See the Michigan State University Extension poster and article for more project details: 2017-ESS-POSTER-FNC16-1050  and  http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/using_goats_to_improve_forage_availability_in_equine_pastures
  7. Preparing for the winter care and keeping of goats.
  8. Successfully bred and kidded out 14 does.
  9. Successfully marketed 20 goats for goat meat.

 

Impacts

This has so far been a very rewarding project.  The goats successfully cleared the 3 acre study area without the use of mechanical devices or chemical application.  Having the goats do the work has saved my family hours of our own labor or the expense of having to hire out the labor.  The goats cleared additional selected sections beyond the study area which further proved their value for including them in my farm operation. By using the goats to clear the overgrowth they provided their own forage for about 6 months which reduces the cost of raising them and eventually the overhead costs of selling any produced for meat.  I foresee the goats being an important piece of our farm ecosystem.  The goats are also very fascinating and fun to watch.  They added to our daily enjoyment of farming and have become animals we want to include on our farm.

Controlling invasive shrubs/promoting native plants: The Autumn Olive and Multiflora Rose are controlled but not eradicated at this time. The goats have browsed for 2 spring/summer/fall sessions. We have been counseled by forestry professionals that the autumn olive takes 7 defoliations to kill them.  I’m assuming that means 7 years.  The goats are tackling huge Autumn Olive bushes.  They stand on their hind legs to reach upper leaves or just push branches down with their front legs.  They even will put their front feet on another goat to gain height.  They also strip the bark on some bushes and that does a lot of damage and almost kills it.  This spring I am seeing a lot of native plant regeneration in the areas where the goats have browsed.  One plant that had almost disappeared is called a Jack in the Pulpit.  I have dozens this year.  Seeing wild violets blanketing areas I have never seen them.  Also have noticed increases in Hepatica,  seeing wild coral bell leaves but no flowers yet and not much else is up yet.

The grape vines are eradicated. Buckthorn was eradicated.  Native honeysuckle was much diminished.  Autumn Olive weakened/diminished and much less regrowth but not eradicated.  Multifloral Rose much less regrowth and diminished size of existing bushes.  We can walk through areas we could not 2 years ago at this time. Other plants controlled by goats include poison ivy (growing up trees has been eradicated, growing on the ground is diminished), wild raspberry and blackberry brambles, and many other unidentified brushy plants growing in low areas and pasture areas.

Marketing and sales:  In our area the meat goats sell well.  We have a big Mexican Indian and Arab population that seek out live or select butchered animals.  I sold everything I had for sale either at auction for reasonable prices or privately.  I did very little marketing.  Basically word of mouth.  I now have one man who buys mature goats to butcher and sell at farmers markets or to private buyers.  We are forming a relationship where I will do the breeding and raising and he will buy mature ready to butcher goats from me.  We are not rebreeding this year because I am building a house and it felt like one thing too many to have 30-50 goats again!

 

Profitability:  I think the meat sales will break even or show a modest profit if I am selling 20-50 goats a year.  This past year they were not profitable because I had expenses for setting up the goat nursery, new larger permanent housing and an additional goat house.  Going forward I will not have these expenses.  I started with 15 goats, 14 does had 22 babies that brought the total to 37.   I had one death due to unconfirmed but suspected listeria infection.  I currently have 17 does.  I plan to maintain 15-25 does and have 20-50 babies a year.

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

20 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
8 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

200 Farmers
200 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Tom, Mike, and I did multiple lectures throughout the county speaking to over 100 farmers.  I did approximately 10 farm tours.  Tom and Mike have fielded phone questions at their respective extension offices with regards to the project. The buyer I am currently trying to partner with attended 2 of our programs.   

Events: 

Field Walk at Arbor Meadow Farm.  28 participants.  Overview presentation by Bess Ohlgren-Miller, Overview of study by Tom Guthrie, Care of Goats by Mike Metzger, Care of Goats by Judy Martinuk.

Michigan State University Small Ruminant Workshop.  80 participants.  Explanation of project and results by Bess Ohlgren-Miller and Mike Metzger.

Jackson County Ag Council Meeting (featured speaker) 22 participants.  Explanation of project and results by Bess Ohlgren-Miller and Tom Guthrie.

Michigan State University Equine Industry Meeting.  40 Participants.  Explanation of project and results by Tom Guthrie.

Branch County Farmers Day. 6 participants.  Explanation of project and results by Mike Metzger and Bess Ohlgren-Miller.

Equine Science Symposium, Minneapolis, MN.  200+ participants.  Tom Guthrie presented a poster of the project.

Michigan State University Animal Science 240 class. 13 students.  Tom Guthrie presented poster and explanation of project and results.

Ag Action Day, Kalamazoo Community College.  12 participants.  Explanation of project and results by Tom Guthrie.

Article on the project in MSU Extension News

Article on the project in Horse.com

 

Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

The goats are very effective at clearing densely overgrown areas.  They successfully opened up overgrown areas where my horses would not graze.  The goats were very effective at clearing vines and brush growing into my woven wire fence lines.  This overgrowth is manually hard to clear and reduces the life span of the fence.  By using the goats to clear they have added more years of service to the fences.  I believe our study has encouraged several goat producers to consider the multiple layers of utility with goats beyond meat and milk production.  This understanding will hopefully provide other avenues of income for producers.  

The implementation of this project for me was fairly easy.  I have barns, water accessibility, fencing and feed resources already available.  I have a very good understanding of animal husbandry and medical skills required to keep veterinary costs low.  The disadvantages in my view would be the learning curve of caring for the goats medical needs daily and during the kidding process.  Additionally the costs of initial set up if you are not already an established farming operation could out weigh any profit.

I would like other owners of large properties, like mine, to consider maintaining goats as way to sustainably control invasive species and natural over growth.  The goats are beneficial for that single job.  The additional opportunity to have an additional income source for the farm is also a plus.  The goats can produce income through milk, meat and leasing to private or public land clearing ventures.  I am very happy to see my goats out working and to have the opportunity to interact with them everyday.  They are good companions on my farm for me and my other animals.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.