Addressing weed challenges: Leafy Spurge is no match for Noya’s goats
Carolina Noya lives a simple, yet peaceful, life. The Wyoming goat herder spends six months of the year out on the Wyoming prairie in a sheep wagon with a herd of goats, several guard dogs and Mother Nature for company.
Noya runs her business, Devils Tower Goats, herding goats through pastures while keeping a watchful eye on them as they gobble up leafy spurge and other noxious weeds.
The goats make a diet of the leafy spurge that plagues Crook County.
“Crook County is the capital of leafy spurge,” Noya jokes. “But the goats love it and are totally addicted to it. Over 90 percent of their diet is leafy spurge, and the other 10 percent is sage, pine trees, oak trees and any underbrush they can reach.”
“Basically, they utilize a plant like leafy spurge that is useless for grazing most animals and produce delicious meat from it. Leafy spurge is about 18 percent protein, so it is a healthy diet for goats,” she explains.
They will only consume grass if they are forced to, Noya continues.
“They really prefer broadleaf plants. They will also eat plants like thistle and Hounds Tongue. It is not something we can train them to do, though. It is something in their system that makes them really like it,” she says.
Noya shared a story from a few years ago when she took in 800 kid goats during the spring.
“They came from Texas when there was a drought, and they had never eaten anything green. We put them out on pasture, and within an hour or two, they had learned what spurge was and liked it. We don’t have to teach goats to eat spurge. They will go for it on their own.”
“When they are out of spurge, they will start looking for a hole in the fence and follow it to the neighbors,” she says.
Although the goats can eventually eat themselves out of job, there will still be seeds in the ground, so the plant is still there, Noya explains.
“We usually try to graze each area of spurge three times, in the spring, fall and again the next spring. The goats can keep it under control, giving other grasses a chance to compete with it,” she says. “If the native grasses can come up, the spurge will not take over. Controlling spurge is not a quick fix. Grazing at different times than when we usually would can prevent it from going to seed and allow other grasses a chance to absorb the moisture to grow.”
During the winter, the goats are still on the job clearing up underbrush, pine trees and junipers.
“They really like it,” Noya explains. “The trees have tannin in them, which is a natural dewormer. We like to see them clear it as high as they can reach, so if we ever have a fire, it won’t burn as hot.”
“The goats can thin an area without hurting the trees. It allows more grass to grow since daylight can get in,” she explains.
Improving the land
Noya sees the goats as providing a service to improving the land.
“They aerate the soil with their feet, and they add organic fertilizer to the soil,” she says. “They can also graze in areas that a sprayer cannot get to.”
She continues, “Overall, they add life to the soil, rather than spraying, which can kill the bugs and microorganisms living in the soil. They can also eat under the trees, where we can’t spray.”
Noya has found ranchers in the area receptive to grazing their leafy spurge with goats because it is a good option.
“Spraying is costly. We can’t spray under trees or close to water, so there is still no guarantee it will get rid of all the weeds. I have been grateful to the ranchers who open up their gates and pastures and are willing to give the goats a try for weed control,” she says. “I’m not afraid to promote a goat.”
The key to grazing goats is management, Noya explains.
“I try to overgraze the weeds but not the grass,” she says. “If we can get the weeds under control, the ranchers can run more cows because they have more grass. When I go to someone’s ranch, I am with these goats day and night. I herd them all day and bed them down at night. If it is possible, I use electric fence to bed them down at night to make it a little easier for the guard dogs to keep predators out.”
Without the guard dogs, grazing goats would not be possible, she says.
“The biggest challenge is the predators,” Noya explains. “The dogs have to fight off mountain lions that sometimes trail the goats for weeks,” she says. “It is hard on the dogs, but it is hard on the herder, too. The dogs look at the goats as their responsibility, and they will do everything they can to protect them.”
As long as the herd stays together, Noya says it is much easier to protect the herd.
“When a goat lags behind or wanders off, they are more likely to be attacked,” she explains. “It is very hard when the mountain lion attacks one dog. They don’t stand a chance.”
The goats also love to travel and climb.
“If there is a big patch of spurge, they will graze for an hour or two, then bed down for a while. They walk as they eat taking a bite or two off a leaf, so I just circle them back. They need the exercise, and it’s how they like to graze,” she says.
Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.