We intended to discover if goats will eat Russian knapweed and thrive on it and if landowners would recognize enough of a benefit to grazing their weeds with goats to hire a goat herd to provide this service.
Members of the weed board stated that they did not think that the goats would eat the weed. Others were concerned that if they did they would die or become sterile. The goats maintained health and weights well and avoided parasites that accompany irrigated areas of grazing. Our kidding percentage for the following spring was 117%. This is due to the goats’ anatomy, with their saliva neutralizing poisonous substances. They also tend to be browsing grazers, sampling a bit of everything and not concentrating on something potentially toxic.
The average cost of goats grazing noxious weeds is $2/head/day. However, because Russian knapweed makes good fodder for goats, if good predator fences and water were provided an agreement could be reached to benefit both parties.
We also discovered the goats eat the knapweed down to the dirt, which eliminates the dry matter left after spraying, which is a fire hazard.
1) Determine if goats grazing Russian knapweed is beneficial to the goat and devastating to the plant.
2) Secure a number of contracts with landowners to graze Russian knapweed.
Our primary concern was finding a suitable way to fence the goats. We started with a three-strand (two hots and one ground) electric fence. This soon changed to a four-strand (three hots and one ground) fence. This proved to be quite labor intensive, so we used temporary electric net fences, which must have positive and negative wires to ground the animal for a good shock. By doing this, we cut our set up time in half and breakouts were rare.
We started grazing the first week in June with 20 nannies and 15 babies on a 1-acre plot. The knapweed was about 8” tall and just starting to grow well. The goats stripped it down to a short stem, shorter than a lawnmower would. After we moved the fence three times, we noticed the knapweed in the first plot had weakened but was growing back and flowering. We began grazing too soon.
By mid-July, the knapweed was in full blossom; anything eaten at this point did not have a chance to grow back. Grazing July through mid-August did the most damage to the knapweed.
In late spring of 2005, we went back to our test sites for observation. By far the most obvious improvement was on a 2-acre plot that had been grazed consecutively for two years. The knapweed count was roughly 40-50% less before the goats grazed it. For clear results, this approach should be used for four years, with a weed count every year to measure success.
A side benefit of this project is that the goats ate thistle, sagebrush, rabbitbrush and other vegetation on the site. The most difficult and expensive part of this project is fencing. A property without fences requires labor on our or the property owner’s part. The predicted cost of this approach ($2/head/day) goes up or down according to the labor involved. It is most beneficial for homeowners with fences to correspond and organize a way for us to the graze through the summer.
BENEFITS OR IMPACTS ON AGRICULTURE
The potential impacts for agriculture include eradication of noxious weeds, improvement of pastures by rotational grazing with cows, firebreak work and goat ranching as a viable addition to a farming operation. According to our research, goats will increase pasture productivity of cattle. While the test was not run long enough to reach any conclusions, the landowner did say that the area the goats grazed was his cattle’s preferred grazing area that fall.
As these goats prove their productivity to the local community, people will be more willing to try goats on their own land. Fire protection in many areas is limited. As the goats graze across 1,400 acres of valley reducing the fire load, not only are they attacking Russian knapweed, they are protecting 450 landowners from the danger of wildfire.
Both of the families we worked with in this project have shown interest in our approach. They found the work easy and beneficial. If something cannot be worked out on a large scale as a community, perhaps individuals could keep their own goats as a solution to the knapweed.
REACTION FROM PRODUCERS
Most reactions focused on what the goats would and would not eat. Many people did not believe that the goats would eat knapweed and survive. The most serious inquiries came from people interested in how the goats were fenced.
Just after we completed our project, the Forest Service sprayed weed killer. People were upset that their properties had been sprayed without consent, and they wanted to take legal action. We never received any complaints about the goats and were told that they were fun to watch with their babies and had no adverse side effects.
Working directly with homeowners is most efficient. Part of our success depended on the weed board’s support and cooperation with media coverage and technical support. When we found they did not support approaches outside of spraying, we were too far into the project and expenses to change action.
Our county changed extension agents near the beginning of the project, and we didn’t receive much help, which kept us from producing as much educational material as we had planned. We were invited to the Natural Resource office in Salt Lake to discuss using goats to create firebreaks. We also gave a presentation to the weed board on the findings of this project. Their final question was how much this would cost. They found our estimates too expensive and plan to continue spraying.