By Matthew Liebenberg
Southern Alberta Newspapers
The fight against invasive weeds requires a diverse approach and different strategies suitable to local conditions. This past summer a herd of goats became part of the battle against leafy spurge on a ranch south of Shaunavon, Sask. along the Frenchman River.
The South of the Divide Conservation Action Program Inc. (SODCAP) is working with rancher Daryl Allemand to implement an integrated weed management approach that uses a combination of spray, beetles and goats against leafy spurge.
Krista Connick Todd, a range agrologist with SODCAP, said it is the second year they are using goats for this particular project. They have used goats for about four years on another project and had good success with it.
“The benefits we’re seeing are quite impressive,” she told Southern Alberta Newspapers. “It provides good control. The reason we’re interested in spurge control is because we want to improve habitat. When the broadleaf spurge comes in, it chokes out the other vegetation and what we see is a drop in the number of birds in particular that are going to use that area. So what we’re trying to do is actually restoring habitat by controlling the spurge.” The goats will be used as part of a four to five-year project on this ranch, and the intention will be to bring them back twice every year.
“Right now, we have funding for four years and we’re hoping to acquire some more funding so we can run at least for five years,” she said. “Usually after five years we see good control.” SODCAP receives funding for such habitat restoration projects through the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, Environment Canada, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. This year the goats were brought in to this project for about 10 days in July to do a quick pass of an area along the Frenchman River, when they ate the flowers of the leafy spurge to prevent the plants from setting seed.
The goats returned in late August to continue their assault on this very resilient weed. This time they moved slower to graze the plants right down. According to Connick Todd there has been positive feedback about the use of goats to control invasive weeds. “The two landowners that we have that are using goats were both very receptive to it,” she said. “They prefer the goats over sheep.”
“The goats are not competing with their cattle for grazing, because they eat very little grass. Sheep will eat more grass, and so sometimes if you’re going to bring in sheep, you’re going to lose some forage value to the sheep instead.” The use of goats on this project south of Shaunavon was the result of discussions between SODCAP and the landowner.
“The producer bought the land a couple of years ago, and it had quite a bad leafy spurge infestation on it,” she explained.
“He had been using some spray to try and control it, and we got talking to him, because it provides potential habitat for a number of species at risk, including loggerhead shrike. And because a lot of the spurge is right along the river, it’s hard to get permission to use spray down there.”
“There were some leafy spurge beetles that they were using, and so we talked to him about also the opportunity to use some goats.” She added that the use of leafy spurge beetles for this project are working well, but it is a slower process. “The beetles eat the spurge, but then they lay their larvae down in the roots,” she said. “When the larvae emerge, they eat at the root of the spurge. So on very small patches, beetles can be effective in controlling spurge.” The goats for this project are supplied and herded by Creekside Goat Company, based in Magrath, southern Alberta. Owner Robert Finck started the company three years ago, although he owned goats in the past. “I’ve been a ranch manager for 25 years and I wanted to do something on my own, and I saw a need,” he said.
“I saw lots of people who were having problems and I saw weeds that were never going away. So we decided to start our own business and using the goats. I still get to deal with animals, and we’ve got a neat business that’s manipulating habitat, and you’re taking care of weeds. I really enjoy it.” He uses the goats in a variety of settings for weed control. His goats will be familiar to residents of Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Calgary, where they have been used in park areas and other sites to graze on weeds. “For me that’s the fun part, it’s never boring,” he said about the variety of sites. “It’s always a challenge.”
“They try us and we do a great job, and they want us to come back and do more. So I’m picking up all this work, because we’ve just always been able to do a good job and people love it.” In urban settings the sight of goats grazing in a green space will usually attract a lot of attention from residents. “People travel from miles to come see the goats, to come talk to us, and there’s just always people around and people like to see it,” he said. The goats are always accompanied by a herder and herd dogs.
He uses border collies for the job. In remote rural settings, such as the project south of Shaunavon, there will also be livestock guard dogs as part of the team to protect the herd against predators. His guard dogs are either Great Pyrenees or Akbash breeds. Leafy spurge produces a milky sap and most animals will not graze on it, but sheep and goats are less affected by it.
“It burns the mouth of different animals and they get kind of sick on it and they don’t like it,” he said. “So that’s how the plant defends itself, and it does not affect the goats. They just love it. They treat it like its cocaine. They get addicted to it, they go after it. Ninety-eight per cent of all the jobs we have are leafy spurge, and the goats just have a great taste for it.” His goats are a cross between the Spanish and Boer breeds. It becomes one of their favourite plants to eat once they become familiar with leafy spurge.
“I’d say leafy spurge is their third favourite plant,” he noted. “They always go to young cottonwood trees first and they’ll hit some of the brush. There’s some brush that they really like, but they will pass by everything for the spurge.” It will take some time to train them to eat leafy spurge, and thereafter they will focus on this weed when they are taken to a project site. “This is their third season, and so they’re hooked on it and love it, but if you went and bought a bunch of goats to turn them out, you’ll have a heck of a first year,” he said. “They will eat it, but not much. They’ll try everything else, because most goats come out of a back yard. They’ve been fed hay and fed other stuff, and they’re not used to making a living eating plants and eating weeds.”
He bought 300 goats in the first year of his business and now has over 500 goats that are trained to eat leafy spurge. “Now the best thing is that the moms are eating and are teaching their babies,” he said. “We get two sets of babies out with us, and they’re killing it, because that’s all they know.” He can train the goats to eat different types of weed, and they can also be used on sites to graze the land as a means of fire prevention.
Finck’s goal is to expand his herd and to have more herders, because he believes there is great potential for this eco-grazing approach towards land management. “I think there’s a lot of future with it,” he said. “People just like the organic part of it. They like that it’s agriculture and animals.”