There is no I in team, and no one player can possess every skill on the field, the same is true when it comes to animals grazing a pasture and controlling weeds and brush.
One effective means of weed control is multi-species grazing, which consists of grazing a combination of species—such as cattle plus horses, sheep, goats or deer—in a pasture or range. Steve Hart, goat Extension specialist at Oklahoma’s Langston University, said many people practice multi-species grazing and do not even realize it.
Examine any pasture, and it will consist of a diversity of plants, including grasses, legumes, good and bad broadleaf weeds and various woody species.
“Diversity is good for yield and yield stability, insect and disease resistance, drought tolerance and soil health,” Hart said. “The issue is that no one animal species consumes all of the forage species.”
Cattle mainly eat grass, some broadleaf weeds and a little bit of browse depending on the breed and their hunger level. Sheep are more balanced in eating grass and broadleaf weeds, but they will only eat browse until about shoulder height. Goats predominately eat browse, some broadleaf weeds and some grass, however, they are flexible depending on what is available that is of high quality. They will eat some grass, but will only eat Bermuda grass as a last resort.
“When a plant class is not consumed, it dominates the pasture and reduces biodiversity,” Hart said. “That is the reason pastures grazed only by cattle become brushy and weedy.”
Hart said past solutions to this problem have been burning and spraying herbicides to reduce competition by these un-grazed species. The issue with this method is that burning suppresses most brushy species, but thickens sericea lespedeza or Chinese bushclover. On the flipside, herbicides often kill some preferred species as well as target species and cost is also often a problem as is the need for repeat applications. Pasture mowing was a popular solution, but the price of fuel, heavy iron and the time involved has made it less cost effective. So what is the answer to this constant problem for cattlemen? It has four legs, sometimes sports a beard and is known for being an escape artist.
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There is no worst enemy for a weed than a goat. Goats love sericea lespedeza and it is actually one of the best forages for them to eat. Enough goats in a pasture means they can reduce the amount of the weeds so other grasses can compete and replace it over time and it is not just weeds on the menu, they also dine on brush and even trees. Hart said they consume 90% of herbaceous and woody species. Goats mostly prefer blackberry, sericea lespedeza, green briar, sumac, winged elm, poison ivy, ironweeds, kudzu, but they will also control honey locust, eastern red cedar, plum, elm, buckbrush, wild rose, dogwood, and Osage orange, among others.
“Goats will stand on their rear legs and consume leaves up to 5 to 6 feet high, leaving a browse line that you can see under,” Hart explained. “Goats will debark some trees, such as black and honey locust, and kill them the first year. Goats will kill smaller brush in only a few years. Bigger brush will take longer. It’s not an overnight fix, but neither is spraying in the long term.”
To accommodate co-species grazing, some facility changes might have to be made. For example, waterers might have to be modified to allow goats access to water troughs. Hart said there are three Ps to think about when grazing goats: perimeter fencing modifications, parasite problems and predators. Hart said one way to convert an existing five-wire fence into a goat-proof perimeter is by adding two or three strands of barbed wire down low so that there is no gap bigger than 7 inches in the lower 30 inches of the fence. He said to try to get the lowest strand within five inches of the ground.
Another tip is to use tie wires between posts because goats will wiggle their bodies between even a tight barb-wire fence. These adjustments to an existing fence are cheaper than putting in a new one and can work well. It will just require some extra labor and the ability to outsmart a mischievous goat.
A four-strand electric fence can work for keeping goats in a pasture, but Hart said landowners must check the voltage every day, because the goat will never slack on testing an electric fence.
“We like to see at least 5,000 volts to keep goats inside the perimeters of the fence,” he said.
Two strands of electric fence lines can be added to an existing five-wire fence for added protection he said. Once the goats are staying in, the next step is keeping the predators out.
“10,000 coyotes voted goat meat as the best, however, local dogs cause the most kills,” Hart said.
Guard donkeys can assist in preventing predation and they will be beneficial in protecting calves from predators as well. Guard dogs also work well, but require dog food daily. An electric fence can be effective at keeping goats in and predators out, but Hart warned that producers should not rely on an electric fence alone.
Parasites are a problem wherever animals are grazing close to the ground. Sericea lespedeza has deworming qualities so goats do not need to be dewormed when grazing on it. Hart said dewormer resistance in goats is a big problem requiring a combination of two or three dewormers in some cases.
Although they sometimes get a bad rap for their ornery habits and odors—depending on the goat—they can be the most valuable player on a field of weeds and in the long term, goats will convert that unwanted vegetation into a saleable product at a profit.
Hart referenced a Texas homily when he said ranchers have cattle and horses for reputation and sheep and goats for finances.
Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or firstname.lastname@example.org.