Goats all-natural approach to weed control
by Coleman Cornelius | Denver Post | April 11, 1999
PORT COLLINS -Lani Benz has hung a hand-painted sign on a roadside pen that holds some of her cashmere goats: "Low-maintenance, self-propelled mowers" and "Natural weed control."
Benz, a Fort Collins weed scientist with a master's degree from Colorado State University, isn't kidding about her goats.
She recently started a new business and plans to haul her 150-head herd around the region to nibble away noxious weeds. Benz said her cashmere goats will wipe out troublesome vegetation on land where herbicides cannot be effectively used due to cost, application problems or environmental concerns.
The 40-year-old entrepreneur, who grew up on a cattle ranch and is fascinated by alternative weed management, acknowledged that her goats are attention-grabbers. But her idea has solid scientific footing, she said.
"I'm a weed scientist, and noxious weeds are a serious issue. But if I can get my foot in the door with a cute goat, I'll do it," she said, surveying a group of yearling does in her yard on the south side of Fort Collins. George Beck, a CSU weed-science professor, said his former student's approach will fit well with other weed controls.
"It's going to be especially effective if people don't want to use an herbicide, or in areas where herbicides can't be used," Beck said. "It's a nice ecological approach, and I think it will be appealing to people."
Benz was among those attending the Science in Wildland Weed Management symposium in Denver this week. During the national conference, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said noxious weeds overtake 5,000 acres every day.
Noxious weeds are a category of non-native, invasive plants -such as Canada thistle, leafy spurge and Russian knapweed -that disrupt entire ecosystems. The weeds push out native plant species and, not long afterward, wildlife.
For city dwellers, noxious weeds are a problem because county experts patrol to look for the weeds and often demand their removal in accordance with state law.
These invasive weeds also ruin farm and ranch land and lead to erosion and other environmental problems. Though laypeople might laugh at a weed scientist's bumper sticker that warns "Leafy spurge -the silent crisis," those familiar with noxious weeds know the plants can wreak economic havoc.
Benz ascribes to the idea of "integrated" weed control, meaning the use of a variety of eradication tools, including chemical herbicides, mechanical mowers, biocontrol insects, burning, grazing and reseeding.
"I'm not against herbicides -they are useful and very specific to problem weeds -but I want to provide another choice," she said.
Reach hard-to-get places
The great thing about goats, Benz said, is they go places a mowing machine can't. And given their druthers, goats choose to chow on weeds.
"Research shows that goats will choose leafy spurge as 85 percent of their diet," Benz said gleefully. "Why not use what the animals naturally do and integrate it into a weed-control plan?"
Benz has invested about $20,000 in her business, Ewe-4-ic Ecological Services Inc. (She first planned to use sheep as her living lawn mowers, thus the "ewe" reference.)
Her sons, 14-year-old Donny and 15-year-old Reggie, are so sold on their mom's idea that they even chipped in some of their college savings to join the family business.
Not long ago, the family paid $10,000 for an entire herd of cashmere goats, bought from a retiring rancher in Kiowa.
Unlike milk goats, cashmere goats are raised for their wool, which commonly is sold to the textile industry. Benz hopes to sell the fine fiber from her goats to area spinners and weavers, who often pay a premium for cashmere.
But her main focus is weeds. For the best effect, goats must be penned in a relatively small area, . where they graze intensively for a short time, then are moved to the next spot.
This approach tills dead vegetation into the soil, aerates the soil and conditions the ground surface to hold moisture. Meanwhile the goats deposit their "prepackaged fertilizer packs," adding organic matter to the soil, Benz said.
The same grazing approach has been used with cattle and sheep to regenerate rangeland, but goats bring an extra advantage as devoted weed eaters.
Chemicals often used
Many people have turned to herbicides to knock out problem weeds because the chemicals are quick, easy and, in recent years, relatively safe if applied correctly, Beck said.
Meantime, grazing has gotten a bad rap because livestock are sometimes ill-managed, leading to overgrazing. But when animals are moved after a short time, plant growth is stimulated and the land is improved.
"Grazing is a tool that can be used to keep almost any rangeland in good health," Beck said.
With science backing her idea, Benz already has landed projects in Wyoming, including two housing subdivisions and a 5-acre and 50- acre ranch with weed problems. She hopes her weed eaters can even be used in downtown Fort Collins.
"To me, this is great fun," she said.