Goats Chew Up N.M. 785
Wyoming Herd of 600 taking weeds away, leaving fertilizer
by Kathryn Holzka | Albuquerque Journal | May 23, 2002
TAOS -A herd of four-legged weed whackers has been mowing down noxious plants around Taos County this week, much to the delight of clients and passersby who can't help but gawk at the band of bleating chompers down from Wyoming for a spring nosh.
The herd of 600 cashmere goats is a detachment of the 2,000-goat strong Ewe4ics Ecological Services of Alpine, Wyo., owned by Lani Lam ming, a former rancher and devotee of nature over chemistry.
Goats never met a weed they wouldn't eat, said Lamming's associate, Dana Ferguson, who has been shepherding the troop with Lamming during its first-time venture into New Mexico. And that includes noxious weeds, poisonous plants, invasive shrubs and trees.
"I think it is safe to say we will be back," Ferguson said Wednesday during the goats' roadside siesta on N.M. 285 some 10 miles south of Tres Piedras. "All our clients here and elsewhere in the state have said they are very happy with the goats' work."
"They actually prefer weeds to grass," said Leslie Haug, an environmental activist who met Lamming last year when she was involved with a group called Beyond Pesticides.
"Lani offered me a job, and I thought I'd last maybe a month or so, but here I am almost a year later, and I just love it," she said.
Goats provide the most effective weed control known to nature or science because, according to Ferguson, they eat down into the weed's root system, destroying it rather than simply cutting it down.
"At the same time, they eat the dead grass, and that helps the new shoots, their hooves break up the clumped soil and help aerate it, and, as an added bonus, their droppings provide natural fertilizer to help the grass grow," Ferguson said.
It's a case of weeds in, fertilizer out in neat little pellets of 100-percent organic plant food - all at no extra cost.
Call it a signing bonus for clients who dare to be different.
Ewe4ics provides a service for people, companies and government agencies who do not want to use chemical sprays to kill off unwanted plant growth because of potential contamination to surrounding plant growth, water, animals and even people.
Last year, Taos County residents raised a hue and cry when the state Highway Department used chemical sprays to kill weeds along state roads. The complaints put a halt to the program, and, this year, the Highway Department contracted with Ewe4ics to see if goats were the better solution.
Since Monday, ramrodded by the two goatherds and their three hard-working border collies, the goats have been clearing noxious weeds along the highway right of way from mile marker 366 to 372 on N.M. 285 south of Tres Piedras.
The Highway Department provided a safety escort for the herd to halt and slow down traffic while the goats browsed their way and provided a water tanker truck to ensure that the goats had plenty of drinking water in their down time.
Ferguson said the goats work about eight hours a day in two four-hour shifts, with a three-hour midday siesta so they aren't working in the heat of the day.
But while the goats' job may sound easy -after all, they are doing what they love best, eating -it isn't without danger.
While the goatherds have never lost a goat to cars, they have lost them to dogs, including one in Taos last week.
"Last week, after we had grazed the herd in Fred Baca Park in town, a dog jumped our fencing after we bedded the herd down for the night and killed one of the goats," Ferguson said. "Then, two nights later, a dog attacked three of our goats, injuring one very badly. We still don't know if he is going to pull through."
She said the goats are worth $500 each after training, which takes about a year.
"It's tough to lose one like that," Ferguson said. "You get attached to them; they're like family."
The attachment is not hard to understand. The goats, with soulful yellow eyes, go about their work with diligence and flair, their small hooves beating the ground with an almost hypnotic rhythm.
They range in weight from 40 to 100 pounds, stand between 2 and 3 feet tall and aren't above enjoying a pat on the shoulder or a rub behind the ear. And a piece of banana nut muffin -or any other edible, for that matter -will be accepted with grace and gratitude.
Ferguson said that the herd will wrap up its work here tonight and that the goats will be transported to Cuba, N.M., for a gig with a ranch association. They will travel throughout the Southwest through the summer and fall.
The company gets $1 a day per goat, which, in this case, is $600 a day, plus any transportation and sheltering expenses that might apply. Jobs are bid in advance, and Ferguson said the herd is virtually booked through the fall.
WEED WHACKERS: Dana Ferguson of Ewe4ics Ecological Services of Alpine, Wyo., oversees her goat herd that was grazing along N.M. 285 on Wednesday.