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Another of our favorite 2020 local new stories: Goats get hired to eat everything within sight

Posted: Tue, Jan 5, 2021 9:40 AM

I have to confess—I'm a sucker for any news story about animals. Last year, for instance, I spent three hours covering a court hearing involving a crowing rooster (the rooster lost!). Several years ago, I covered the comings and goings of a black goat named "Cliff" who lived in—you guessed it—a cliff alongside Highway 52. So last summer when we learned that Luther College had hired a group of goats to do weed control out at the Luther Farm, I was happy to read our story (https://www.decorahnews.com/archived-stories/2020/07/25725.html) by fabulous summer intern Carina Yee:

"A herd of goats has been introduced to Luther College's Roslien Woods to 'flash graze' the land and decrease the amount of invasive plant species.

"This 'mob grazing' or 'flash grazing' is intense grazing for a short period of time that targets woody species, including European buckthorn and Amur honeysuckle," says Luther College Associate Professor of Biology and Natural Areas Land Manager Molly McNicoll.

Decreasing the invasive species population in the woodland will allow for growth of native species by creating less competition for sunlight and space.

However, the goats feast on everything in sight -- not just the invasive species. They don't care if it's toxic wild parsnip, chemically-inhibiting buckthorn, or just plain old grass. Despite eating all of these potentially harmful plants, the goats have shown no signs of being affected. "I'm so impressed with goats," comments McNicoll, "Their stomachs are pretty well known for being tough as steel."

Another advantage of goats being indestructible is that they have no problems digesting tree bark. To eat the bark, they have to strip it from the trees in a process called girdling (and don't worry, the trees can't feel that they're being eaten alive by hungry goats). Girdling still allows nutrients to flow up the tree, but the nutrients can't go back down to the roots. As a result, the roots can't fill up their nutrient stores which are used to produce new shoots in late summer.

Not only do goats eat trees alive, but they also hunt in packs. One goat stands on the base of the buckthorn's wrist-sized branches to bend the tree down to goat-height while others gnaw away at its leaves and buds.

With the goats (literally) clearing the way, Luther can reduce its herbicide use to target individual plants instead of having to spray it on the entire woodland. After that, they plan to plant native species such as milkweed to restore the woods to its natural state.

The first goat feast began on June 22nd and will be followed by a rest period until the goats are moved to a new buffet site in August or September."

Carina Yee headed back to college, so the next time the goats got put to work, it was my turn to cover them. I'm happy to say they were just as efficient in removing weeds from along Dry Run Creek (https://www.decorahnews.com/archived-stories/2020/08/26057.html).

Where will the goats go next? I don't know, but I know they now have developed a bunch of faithful fans!