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Goat grazing demonstration on sagebrush and salt cedar

On June 17, 2006, a small crowd of people from New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah gathered in Cuba to witness the unique sight of approximately 300 goats eating sagebrush. Participants at the goat grazing demonstration "field day" learned about using goats as a management tool to control sagebrush and salt cedar, or tamarisk, in formerly healthy grasslands and riparian areas. The field day, part of a three-part project funded by the Rio Puerco Management Committee's (RPMC's) Watershed Initiative, took place on a part of NM State Trust Land off of County Road 11.

Large, undesirable stands of salt cedar and sagebrush are common throughout the Rio Puerco watershed and the state of New Mexico. Salt cedar, an invasive species, moves into riparian areas and reduces desirable native plants such as cottonwood and willow. Sagebrush, though native, often dominates grasslands that have been degraded by a history of fire suppression and overgrazing with sheep and cattle. Monotypic stands of sagebrush provide little ground cover in comparison to grasses. Healthy grasslands, on the other hand, allow precipitation to infiltrate more effectively, which can prevent sediment and precious topsoil from being eroded away.

Landowners struggling to remove or reduce sagebrush currently choose from a variety of chemical and mechanical treatments, including spike, brush-hogging, shredding, and cutting by hand. RPMC's three-part goat grazing project explores a biological alternative to these methods and will demonstrate the effectiveness - or ineffectiveness - of using goats to control sagebrush and salt cedar. River Source, a watershed education and restoration company, is monitoring how much sagebrush the goats consume during each season and what kind of grasses grow in afterwards. These results will be compared to another RPMC-sponsored project in the Cuba area that examines the effectiveness of mechanical and chemical treatments on sagebrush.

Sarah Harris, who runs a New Mexico-based business called Western Weed Eaters, is providing three seasons of goat grazing treatment for this project. Harris uses trained goats to eat noxious and invasive weeds such as knapweed, Russian olive, and salt cedar. She was skeptical during the first project treatment last August that even her healthy, well-trained, weed-eating goats would eat sagebrush. But by altering her goats' mineral supplements, she enticed the penned herd to start consuming sagebrush seedheads, leaves, and woody stems at a rapid rate. Within days of treatment, even with no rain event, grasses beneath the sagebrush plants began growing. And, as Harris told participants at this spring's field day, "[the goats] were heavier and fatter and in better shape coming out."

When people first arrived at the field day, the goats were hardly eating at all. "They tell us when they're done," Harris explained. As soon as a gate was opened to the next plot, the goats rushed in and immediately began eating. Harris noticed that although the goats were moving through about half an acre a day - more than last fall - they did not seem to be achieving the same level of sagebrush canopy reduction. This spring, with the sagebrush in a growing stage and no seedheads to be found, the goats first went after the dry stems that had seeds last year, then the woody parts, and finally the leaves. They were thorough at stripping bark off many of the plants. Some of the older goats ate everything, especially on the bigger, more mature sagebrush. "When I see them doing this well on it," Harris said, "I'm very - very pleased."

Harris' goal in treating sagebrush with goats is not necessarily eradication. Rather, she would like to achieve control over it by inhibiting expansion and growth. A major benefit with goats is that they reduce the plant's seed supply, which was demonstrated during the first RPMC treatment. After treating the sagebrush this spring, the goats will return to do one more treatment during the autumn seeding stage. Harris predicts that the best time of year to use goats on sagebrush may be August to November, which is when elk start to browse sagebrush. The plants are more nutritious and high in protein during this period, and the older leaves are possibly more palatable than the new spring growth. When the goats return this August, they will also treat regrowth on salt cedar that was browsed and cut last fall.

Every year, New Mexicans spend a great deal of money on noxious and invasive weeds in an effort to improve their land. With this project, Harris would like to demonstrate the idea that ranchers can get more return on their land by using goats to treat weeds, even sagebrush. It may not be cost-effective to hire someone to bring goats in. However, Harris' own experience as a rancher has shown that a multi-species grazing program can greatly increase landowners' profits, if the landowners are willing to train their own goats. Since goats eat about 80% forbs and only 20% grasses, they balance the opposite needs of cows. Moreover, Harris sells her goats for meat at about $1.50 per pound. Turning undesirable plants into feed for goats "really pumps up the bottom line pretty quick," she concluded.

At the end of the field day, Sarah Harris asked participants to share their impressions of the demonstration. Steve Lucero, one of the attendees, had never seen goats on sagebrush and was surprised to see how much they could accomplish. "You just hear all the negative about goats, everywhere you go," said Lucero, who had often heard that goats were not cost-effective. Harris responded that goats are good for seed control and containment but are certainly not the total answer to weed problems. "It's just a tool in the toolbox," Karl Stock, another participant, noted. "It's a very effective tool," Harris added, "if used correctly and managed wisely."

Sarah Harris and her goats will be back in action this September.