Goats make quick meal of weed work
Devils Tower — According to local legend, leafy spurge first arrived along Left Creek in northeast Wyoming shortly after the turn of the last century. Making its beginning as an ornamental plant in an area flowerbed, the weed began its march down the tributary of the Belle Fourche River, becoming a near monoculture in some areas.
Over the last 100 years efforts to control the noxious weed have included herbicides, biological control utilizing insects and the grazing of goats.
“We’ve pretty much thrown the kitchen sink at it in terms of weed control,” says ranch owner Ogden Driskill.
But, he says, it’s been in the last 20 or so years, since the ranch began utilizing insects for biological control and sheep and goat grazing, that they’ve truly seen results.
Driskill says they’ve more than doubled their carrying capacity on the ranch since implementing sheep and goat grazing.
“We’re getting to where 70 to 80 percent of the ranch doesn’t have much spurge on it,” says Driskill.
In the early ‘90s goats grazed on the ranch, followed by the presence of sheep and then a return to goats three years ago.
Driskill says goats eat fewer of the same plants as cattle, adding, “If you’re trying to get leafy spurge, goats are the preferred tool.”
“I don’t think you can kill spurge,” says Carolina Noya. “It’s here, but you can control it.”
Driskill agrees, noting that they’ll always need some type of control or management on the ranch. Since Noya arrived, he says the goat grazing has been managed the best it ever has.
Three years ago Noya responded to a job opportunity herding the goats that eat and help manage the leafy spurge along Left Creek and the Belle Fourche River. Responding to an adventuresome opportunity wasn’t new for Noya who left her native Holland over 20 years ago, pursuing a series of horse-related jobs and coming to Wyoming to work on the Allemand Ranch.
At the Driskills’ ranch near Devil’s Tower, Noya’s job was ensuring the goats safely travel from one patch of spurge to the next, bringing maximum benefit to the resources they’re working to improve. In a more general sense, Noya is making lemons into lemonade.
Cattle, the Driskills’ stock of choice, won’t eat spurge and tend not to graze where the plant is too thick. Sheep will eat the plant and over the years helped the Driskills bring the weed under control. Goats, according to Noya, are quick addicts when it comes to grazing on the latex-filled weed with roots that can reach over 20 feet below the earth’s surface.
Once the goats pass through an area, grazing on the spurge, cattle can more easily access the grass and other desirable plants beneath.
“There’s only about a 10 percent overlap between what cattle eat and what goats eat,” explains Greg Fink, Noya’s husband and the man in charge of delivering supplies, herder relief and the occasional rescue of a goat from the waters of the Belle Fourche River.
A quick believer in the program’s benefit, in 2010 Noya purchased goats and did so again in 2011. In 2010 Noya’s flock was comprised on nannies that kidded on the range. Death loss to mountain lions drove her toward yearlings for the 2011 grazing season. While death loss has been extremely low, herding the spry young critters is a little more work.
Driskill hosts Noya and her goats simply for the benefits the grazing brings to the ranch.
“It’s a good co-enterprise,” he says. “Hopefully she makes a good living, and it gives us weed control at an exceptionally low cost.”
In May of this year Noya’s goats, yearling Boers and Spanish goats, arrived from Texas weighing an average 40 pounds. Unloaded into pens, the first few weeks were dedicated to acclimating the goats to their new home and treating any illnesses following the long trip.
Never before grazing on spurge, Noya says, “For the first six hours the goats would just take a bit of spurge and move on. The next day they realized, ‘This is good.’ They cleaned the spurge out of the whole area, not because they were forced to, but because they like it.”
In the months that followed Noya’s goats turned yellow canopies into areas green with grass available for the cattle grazing to follow.
“If you didn’t know the spurge was there before, it doesn’t look like anything has been on it,” says Noya.
“They take management,” says Noya. “You can’t just turn them loose; you could if you’re willing to take the losses. Once you’re out of spurge, they will follow the spurge and end up at the neighbors.”
By herding the goats Noya and Driskill can work together, pinpointing which patches of leafy spurge to graze and for what duration.
As the first of October roles around Noya will trade life in a sheep wagon for a hot shower and a warm bed. Fattened on high protein feed other animals won’t eat, the goats will head to markets east of here, a little heavier than they were in May. Noya goes home with two benefits — having had the opportunity to care for the stock all summer and the belief she is leaving the Left Creek and Belle Fourche River drainages in better shape than she found them.
Driskill, who operates a weed spraying business in addition to his ranch, suggests that land managers consider multiple tools when managing weeds.
“Watershed type weed control problems are very rarely controlled by chemical,” he says.
Jennifer Womack is a freelance writer who can be reached at Womack@Wyoming.com or 307-351-0730.