Goats put the bite on weeds
The Fence Post | March 29, 1999
In the early eighties, Lani Benz was struggling to survive as a rancher near Lander, Wyo. But when the bottom fell out of the cattle market in 1985, Benz, like many others living off the land, went broke. A single mother of two boys, 3 and 4 years old, Benz couldn't afford to wait for a turnaround."I couldn't buy groceries for my kids," she said.
Down but not out, Lani headed south to find work, first managing ranches in eastern Colorado and then driving a semi for an oil company. When that operation shut down, she took on yet another challenge: attending school. On May 6, 1994, she graduated with straight As from Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo., and the very next day was headed for a master's degree program in weed science at Colorado State University.
Today, master's degree in hand, Lani is running her own weed management business out of Fort Collins, Colo., and is in fact making headlines in Colorado and Wyoming with a weed-killing bent that's uniquely her own. To her knowledge, Lani Benz is the only professional weed manager in the region using goats.
Long Day Ahead
Despite a long day ahead, Benz takes time to describe her life and newest venture during breakfast. After eating, Lani will check on some 800 goats munching weeds along the South Platte River near Milliken, Colo. Then she heads southeast of Denver to a research project she and her two teenage boys oversee for CSU. There she'll load 20 sheep into her trailer and transport them back to Fort Collins. The day before, Benz worked along I-70 near Vail, Colo., surveying weeds as part of yet another job.
During small talk Benz was surprised to hear that hard rains had flooded parts of Denver the previous night. "I don't have time to watch TV;" she explained, smiling and shrugging.
That's to her liking, though. Benz enjoys hard work, especially if it means she and her boys, Reggie, now 16, and Donny, 14, can make their living off the land. It's all the better if that living allows her to make use of her scientific training and to help others. She can do all three with her goat herd and weed-control business, Ewe-4-ic Ecological Services Inc.
Taking a Risk
Like the rest of her odyssey to this point, Lani's goat purchase came with plenty of risk. "It took all the money I had, and the boys took money out of their college fund," she said. She even took a loan against her pickup. As with any new endeavor, it took time to get the word out. "It's getting better," though, says Lani.
That's putting it mildly. She's had the goats less than a year, but as of lately July 1998 they were nibbling weeds near Milliken and Evergreen, Colo., and around Jackson, Wyo. Demand for the goats is so high, in fact, Benz has leased 800 additional head.
Even with the extras, the waiting list for the goats continues to grow."There's usually five people waiting for us to hurry up and get there," she says. If things continue at this pace, Benz expects to increase the herd to 10,000 head by next year.
Lani is determined that people realize the threat of noxious weeds, and how well goats can control them.
"There's room for 100 people like me," she says, surprisingly open about the potential for success others might also have with goats. That, in fact, is her goal. Her sons are already partners in her business and co-owners of the goats. Plus, last summer she hired and taught several other teenagers to oversee the goats.
In coming years she would like the teens to take on their own small bands of five to 10 goats. Now that the teens have practical experience, it would be a great way for them to learn responsibility and earn money, she says. Plus there's a growing need (literally!) to control noxious weeds.
That need springs from the fact that noxious weeds are non-native, aggressive plants. "They will take over the landscape if they're not controlled," says Lani.
Colorado has a list of about 68 noxious weeds, with perhaps 10 that are the "biggies," she adds. By Colorado law, anyone with noxious weeds on their property must control them.
Basically there are four types of weed management tools: chemical (the use of herbicides), mechanical (hoeing, hand-pulling, or mowing), biological (the use of insects) and cultural (reseeding or burning). Goats are considered biological or cultural controls.
Wherever goats fit, what's certain is that they do their weed-eating job well. "By managing time and (goat) numbers I can do anything I want to," says Lani. What goats will eat, by preference, would in fact make up a who's who list of noxious weeds: leafy spurge, thistles, knapweeds, Dalmatian toadflax, mustards and more.
"What the goats can do ...it's amazing," says Lani.
With all her enthusiasm over goats, Lani cautions that she is not against other weed-control methods. "I just want to give people another choice," she says.
Often the best weed-control strategy is to integrate several methods in one area over a growing season, she says. That may mean using goats in May, when weeds sprout, to stress the young plants. When the weeds go to seed later in summer, it could be more effective to release bio-control insects. That way, animals don't spread weed seed in their feces. Lani might then launch another whammy in September by returning the goats. As the fourth punch, an herbicide might be applied next, in October. Finally, it could help to mow or burn what's left of the weeds in winter.
Once bare ground appears, Benz says it's critical to start reseeding with desirable species. Otherwise noxious weeds, which are by nature opportunistic, will gain a foothold again.
That would be the ideal way to knock out weeds. In the real world, though, people may not have the time or money to integrate an attack all at once. Or the problem may simply not require that much effort. Either way, goats can provide good control, stressing weeds to the point of die-out, or at least slowing weed growth until more can be done.
Taking Care of Business
Along the South Platte River, for example, Lani's goats are chomping away at 250 acres of weeds, including Scotch thistle, Canada thistle, musk thistle, diffuse knapweed, perennial pepperweed and leafy spurge. Because of the river's proximity, herbicides are not a good choice, she says. Other methods such as mowing, hoeing or pulling would also have limited benefit because of the area's size, heavy weed cover and uneven terrain. But goats, the ultimate all-terrain vehicle and nature's own lawn mower, are making headway -without detriment to the land or river.
Lani's point is well-made later that morning, as she walks through the area checking on the goats and talking with the herder and several teenagers who help manage the herd. In one spot, where the goats have grazed intensively, all that remains are leafless weed stalks and hoof-tilled dirt sprinkled evenly with pellets of goat droppings. "It's an ideal seed bed," says Benz, digging her boot toe into the loosened soil. Now it's just a matter of following through by reseeding with desirable plants.
The surroundings bring to mind a statement she made earlier at breakfast: "Goats eating weeds is the oldest technology known to mankind. This is just a new application."
By that Lani means she not only leases the goats, but also tends to them. "I provide it all, so I know it's taken care of and done right," she says of her goats and business. And there are other benefits.
Several small-acreage owners have told her they enjoy watching the goats. Benz suspects the animals give people, especially those who work in urban environments, a sense of being connected to the land.
That's good, she says, because the more people feel connected, the more they may understand and promote holistic land and weed management, as opposed to what Benz calls a more "linear" tack.
Certainly "you can nuke them" with herbicides, she says of weeds. In many places that's been the approach for years. It's quick, she concedes, but can have disastrous results. Without a plan, "you may end up with six more serious problems that you may not know how to deal with," she cautions such as poisoned land and water.
For Lani, the best and safest overall option is "to use life to manage life." In other words, use goats to eat weed
Right Tool for the Job
Benz understands that for many people, that idea may take some getting used to. Even Lani hadn't considered using goats until she met a lady who raved about the Cashmere breed's good nature. Intrigued, Benz went to the lady's house to have a look. "The minute I saw those goats, I knew that was the tool to do my job," she says. Soon after that she bought 150 Cashmere goats. Many were pregnant, so her herd quickly grew to 250.
It's well-known that goats eat weeds, she says. It's just that their overall reputation is lacking. Some goats can be down right "mean and nasty. "
Fortunately, Cashmere goats break the mold. "They are the easiest to handle and have the nicest temperaments," Benz says. "They're the ones that people love."
What's even nicer is that after comparing the eating habits of goats and sheep, Benz is convinced goats are the better choice for weed control.
Whereas sheep might eat a diet comprised of 50 percent weeds, goats often prefer weeds over other forage, eating a diet of 85 percent or more noxious weeds, she says. Plus, goats take to weeds naturally. Sheep, on the other hand, need to be conditioned to eat certain weeds, Lani says.
By using Cashmere goats, Lani also has the opportunity to market a product made from their coats. "I can't do anything simple," she chuckles.
Benz thinks ear warmers might sell well if a tag explains the fiber is from from goats that eat weeds.
Lani's sense of mission doesn't stop there. Last fall she presented her weed-eating ideas at a brown bag luncheon hosted by the U.S. Department of the Interior. She was invited by officials from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's office. She hoped to convince department officials to do more to control weeds and to employ that control in innovative ways, like using goats.
What's next for Benz? More of the same, only bigger and better. "I learned a lot this year on how to run things," she says. She hopes to build on that experience.
And while last year, like so many before, has been a challenge, you get the sense that Lani Benz thrives on the uncertainty and thrill of it all. In her own words: "Every day's an adventure."