WMU rents goats to munch away on invasive species

A four-footed landscape crew from Munchers on Hooves has been at work this week eating their way through invasive plants on campus woodlots at Western Michigan University.

Ten goats, including Buba, Cinnamon, and Diva, have been munching on buckthorn, honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet and poison ivy. 

Goats will eat just about anything, though they prefer weeds, vines and woody material over grass. And the seeds of invasive plants aren't viable after passing through a goat's digestive system, so native plants have an easier time reestablishing themselves.

If the initial pilot program succeeds the goats will be moved to another piece of land on the back side of the pond. The goal is to clean up more of the property on the back side of the pond to make the site a more useable and inviting green space.

Nick Gooch, WMU horticulturist is the one who proposed bringing goats to campus.

"The current management practice to combat these species using labor, machinery and chemical herbicides is labor and capital intense and fails to improve the site to allow the native community to achieve balance and restore the ecosystem," he says. As campus woodlots are used and developed invasive species are going to continue to spread, making the land ideal to test out land management by goats.

The goats improve the soil by adding nutrient-rich manure to the surface, thereby creating an environment for beneficial plants and animals to thrive. They also can clear problem areas like steep slopes, ditches, and a stream bank. They don't destroy beneficial plants unless overgrazing takes place and they leave sites fairly clean so future hand work to remove torn, tattered, and uncut material is less labor-intensive.

Typically, it costs WMU about $1,618 to clear one-quarter acre using labor, machinery, and herbicides, Gooch says. The four-legged weed cleaning crew will cost an estimated $1,280 per one-quarter acre. 

He says the goats' effectiveness will depend on topography and the variety and density of the plant species present. In cases where there is especially aggressiveness vegetation, two or three repeat grazings could be necessary.

Munchers on Hooves, owned by Garrett and Gina Fickle of Coldwater won the bid for the project. Their goats were to spend a week inside a portable electric fence installed south of Goldsworth Valley Pond just below Sindecuse Health Center.

Plans call for the goats to be moved to additional plots further west on the north side of the Goldsworth Valley section of the Ring Road if all goes well.

Goats can clear vegetation four feet up from the ground and work together as a team in hard-to-reach places, says Gina Fickle.

“Every site that they go to is seen by them as a new salad bar," she says.

The friendly goats are used to working 24 hours at day and they work in the county and the city. “Noise doesn't bother them--they just kept on munching even with the recent fireworks," Gina Fickle says.

She and her husband have been breeding and raising Boer goats for seven years. They started using them in 2016 to clear buckthorn on their property.

Now they are working to educate the public about goats and what the animals can do for the environment as they grow their business, Munchers on Hooves.

WMU is not the first to try out goats for the fight against invasive species. The Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission started using them in 2014 and the University of Michigan Golf Course rented goats for clean-up work in 2015. Airports in Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco use goats as do schools such as Clemson, Oregon State the universities of Georgia and Wisconsin-Madison.

Source: Western Michigan University
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