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Goats: The Low-Tech Weed Killers - 2002-11-13

In California's agriculture-intensive Central Valley, controlling weeds is a top priority. But chemical herbicides can't always be applied safely, especially near lakes, streams or irrigation canals. Now, the government and farmers are studying an environmentally friendly and decidedly low-tech way to clear unwanted foliage from private and public lands.

Gayle Roberts loads her border collie "Fly" in the back of her pickup truck, and leaves her ranch to oversee a new facet of the business she runs with her husband, clearing large tracts of land of unwanted growth. Ms. Roberts doesn't use mowers, weed eaters or other mechanical devices to get rid of underbrush, bushes, and weeds. Nor does she spread herbicide to kill them. Her method is decidedly 'low tech.'

Land clearing and brush clearing with goats is done quite a bit in California. It's an ecologically sensible way to do it.

On this day, while "Fly" supervises, the Roberts' goats are disposing of some leaves, twigs and underbrush on a bank of the Mokelumne River near Lockeford. The herd is part of a project at the Lockeford Plant Materials Center, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"When you're walking down the river we have quite a bit of invasive species that have just overtaken our river frontage," says USDA agronomist Tish Espinosa.

Ms. Espinosa is coordinating the project. She says the government needed to do something so agriculture and fish and wildlife agents could get closer to rivers like the Mokelumne. She said the thick growth on the banks kept the agents at bay.

"We were thinking of a way to get rid of the blackberries and some of the other plants and we're looking out there thinking 'what could we use?' We don't want to go in there with equipment because we don't know the topography of the levee bank. We don't know where it drops, cuts, you know, because we can't see it," she said.

Not all goats will consistently eat blackberries and all of the other unwanted undergrowth. So Ms. Espinosa began selectively breeding a herd that would eat any plant, including razor-sharp thorns and poison oak.

"Some goats are just made to be fed hay and grain and kept in a yard where they're kind of pampered. Where other goats need to be more rugged and out there eating, surviving on stems and sticks and leaves and just forage for their food," Ms. Espinosa said.

Ms. Espinosa says over the past year, the herd has been honed from 130 to 75 of the most ravenous goats.

At the river, the goats are fenced in so they don't wander off and fall prey to predators or dine on crops or plants they're not supposed to eat. It's obvious they've done their job well. Even though there's still plenty of growth left, there are many places with a clear view of the river, and a path leading to it.

Karen Terrill of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says the goats could also be used to clear underbrush around homes in forested areas, thus reducing the possibility of wildfires. "Using grazing animals is one good way to make fire safe, especially if it's on a steep slope that's difficult to get to with a weed eater or mechanical device," Ms. Terrill said.

But not everyone likes the idea of using goats to clear land. Carl Zechella of the California Sierra Club says ravenous goats can leave damage in their wake.

"Some of these goats might escape somewhere and get into wilderness areas or national parks or places that have sensitive environments and basically eat anything because they've been bred to eat basically anything and everything," Mr. Zechella said.

Mr. Zechella says goats often figure out a way to escape from fenced areas. Ms. Roberts and Ms. Espinosa agree, saying left unattended, goats can wreck havoc. They emphasize that such projects have to be closely monitored to ensure the goats only eat what they're supposed too.

They say the advantages of using goats to clear land of unwanted foliage far outweigh the disadvantages. It appears the goats would agree.