Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of goats eating shrubs © Lee Fahrney

Goats can help control invasive weeds and woody plants in oak savannas and other sensitive habitats.
© Lee Fahrney

February 2013

Let's do brunch – or is it brush?

Let's hear it for Goats for Brush Control.

Lee Fahrney

When it comes to preservation of Wisconsin's natural resources, one doesn't often think of goats as great protectors of the environment. But as the participants in the Goats for Brush Control Field Day at the Yellowstone Lake State Wildlife Area (SWA) discovered, these guys are enthusiastic about sweeping away all manner of noxious weeds and woody invaders.

A research project, spearheaded by Professor John Harrington of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Landscape Architecture – School of Natural Resources, aimed to explore the use of goats to reverse the negative impact of unwanted vegetation in oak openings and woodlands.

The Yellowstone Lake SWA presented as a prime candidate for the study. After the 2,000-acre property was logged in 2007 in an attempt to restore oak savanna, extensive growth of woody vegetation led property managers to explore ways to ensure the viability of the effort.

Harrington offered background information noting that oak savanna once covered 27-33 percent of Wisconsin, most of it concentrated in the southern part of the state. He told the group of approximately 50 people that the combination of fire and grazing is especially helpful.

"When fire and grazing is removed, brush takes over," he told the group. He pointed out the combination of the two methods can help landowners improve the value of their property. "This allows property owners to expand their range," Harrington opined, stating that "hundreds of thousands of acres in Wisconsin" would benefit.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bruce Folley said Scottish Highland cattle were once used to deal with the brushy vegetation that was taking over.

"They worked just fine but were harder to care for than goats and were also harder on the land," he said. "I think the ultimate would be a combination of different animals due to their different habits."

There were 86 goats on site, according to Ben Robel of Vegetation Solutions LLC, who provided the animals for the project. He refers to his animals as "meat" goats, most of which are of the Kiko breed.

"I like the Kiko because of its hardiness, good mothering ability and ability to survive on grass and brush only," Robel said.

Robel likes the grazing concept because he views it as a natural process in ecosystems.

"They can get into hard-to-walk areas, thrive on unwanted vegetation and circumvent the need for chemicals," he said. "The practice also allows for a gradual process instead of a drastic change with chemicals, chainsaws or forestry mowers."

Participants in the field day experience brought with them myriad perspectives. Ron and Sally Niemann of nearby Blanchardville had provided some of the Scottish Highland cattle for the earlier phase of the grazing project.

"We know that land and the goal of the project," said Sally. "I'm always interested in seeing what the goats can do."

The former owner of a herd of milking goats, Niemann declared that goats are a good fit for the Yellowstone project for their ability to climb and go almost anywhere. "That particular area is quite steep," she said. "They would be ideal around bluffs."

Niemann also noted that goats do a good job keeping unwanted vegetation in check, including some of the least attractive plants for a grazing animal, such as multiflora rose.

"Goats are terrific browsers," she said.

Goats will scour the countryside for any number of shrubs from which they derive up to 80 percent of their diet, according to UW-Madison graduate student Katie Baumann. In addition to multiflora rose, other tree and shrub species attractive to goats include American elm, basswood, blackberry, dogwood, honeysuckle and prickly ash. Baumann said goats will also dine on invasive weeds such as garlic mustard and wild parsnip.

Robel noted that goats have a large liver which allows them to better tolerate toxins. However, the goats do have their culinary limits; they turn up their muzzles at walnut trees!

The protocol requires five replicate blocks of four acres each. Each block contains three "paddocks," said Baumann, divided into heavy graze, light graze and one control area.

"It takes 30 days to rotate through the paddocks," she concluded. "Fire is used only once during the year."

Elizabeth Lamb of New Glarus brought her two young daughters, Alivia and Brynna, to the event. She hoped to gather information about natural ways to manage the restored prairie on the family's property near New Glarus. As for 5-year-old Alivia, she was most impressed by, well, "the goats."

Catherine Bruner, field manager of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve on the UW-Madison campus, echoed Lamb's intentions. Rather than private property, however, she is caretaker of public land where she and her colleagues believe goat grazing has potential in managing the preserve – both for continued research potential and to reduce reliance on chemical and fossil fuel-powered equipment.

Folley is pleased with the outcome.

"I have a strong commitment to show public and private landowners and our neighbors what takes place in the wildlife area and to show them tools they can use to manage their lands," he said. "Once the research is done, producers can help to maintain grasslands and still turn a profit."

Lee Fahrney is a freelance writer from Iowa County. He also serves as secretary of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.