Land clearing with goats?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

PLYMOUTH CO. -- It may be a while, or never, before the sound of bleating goats overpowers the drone of weed whackers or mowers in northwest Iowa prairies and wildlife areas.

Results from an Iowa Department of Natural Resources experiment to use goats to clear stream banks in a Clayton County wildlife area have been promising.

The goats are an alternative to machines or chemicals and may be less destructive to the environment, according to managers of the project.

Whether similar uses for the munching creatures can be found in Plymouth County is undetermined.

"We've not talked about it a lot," said Nicholas McKee, Plymouth County Conservation resource manager. "I would say given the right situation we would definitely consider looking at it as a viable option."

When clearing land, 60 to 120 goats are used depending on the space, notes one rent-a-herd company.

Sixty goats can eat about one-quarter of an acre in about three to five days, according to the company's website.

But a decision to use goats must consider a region's specific needs.

Jim Jansen, DNR northeast Iowa wildlife supervisor, said the area where the goat experiment is taking place consists of streams that have lots of woody brush encroaching their banks.

"Primarily the plants that we're targeting are willow, and then there's prickly ash, elderberry, honeysuckle -- those would be the primary woody species," Jansen said.

Goats are effective at reducing woody encroachment because they select out trees and leaves, he added.

The types of unwanted species that affect northeast Iowa are different than those in the northwest, said Mark Gulick, northwest Iowa wildlife supervisor at the DNR.

The primary species targeted for removal are non-woody plants, such as brome grasses, he said.

Those differences have led to the use of different methods of species control, Gulick said.

Currently, prescribed cattle grazing or burns are the favored method of removing invasive or unwanted species in the region.

The cost of using cattle is less than goats, noted Gulick.

"It doesn't cost us anything," he said. "Essentially we let the people come in, and oftentimes they'll put up the fence. They'll manage the water."

Comparatively, the DNR must provide or pay for those services when a goat herd is used, Gulick said.

Cattle also are good at selecting the grasses the DNR wants removed in the northwest, he said.

"They want to eat grass," Gulick said. "They focus on those cold-season grasses, brome, Kentucky Blue, things like that."

For the woody brush that is found in northwest Iowa, Gulick said using controlled burns is a useful method because the grasses found in the region act as an effective fuel source.

"In northeast Iowa they can't really do prescribed fire there," he said. "My guess is there isn't enough grass fuel to carry a hot enough fire through those brush species to knock them back."

Gulick said he is going to take a wait-and-see approach to evaluate how the goat experiment pans out in the northeast before taking further steps.

While those factors must be considered, McKee noted there are benefits of using goats.

"The goats can definitely go places that machines can't go," he said. "Goats are going to eat a lot more hours of the day than people are going to want to work."

Another advantage of using goats is probably not as important as others.

One company that markets their use states that reason best.

Goats are "super cute weed removal."

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