A new line of defense in the proverbial fight between man and weeds may be gaining traction among farmers and other business in West Michigan. But instead of being based on chemicals or other manmade products, this solution is much more back to nature.
Increasingly, businesses in West Michigan have turned to using goats and sheep for weed management on farms and other woodlots.
Case in point: Western Michigan University (WMU) struggled for years to tackle invasive species on 30 acres of woodlots at its main campus in Kalamazoo. After years of trying to beat back the brush with conventional technology like brushcutters and bobcats, the university opted to try something different.
“We’ve gone down that (traditional) route for a couple years … but I came to the realization after a couple times that we’re really just spinning our tires and not making any progress,” said Nick Gooch, a horticulturist on WMU’s landscape staff. “You cut the stuff down and two years later it comes back thicker and worse than it was. We weren’t making any improvements to the site; we were just keeping our heads above water.”
After some research, Gooch reached out to Munchers On Hooves LLC, a Coldwater-based company that rents out its goats for weed management, to form a pilot program and attempt to solve the problem. WMU deployed 10 of the company’s 20 goats for seven days to test the animals’ effectiveness on a small half-acre tract of land within a larger 16-acre woodlot.
“My expectations initially were to see if this was even possible,” Gooch said. “When I first started talking to people about bringing goats onto campus, they kind of laughed. It wasn’t really received very seriously until I kept pushing the idea further and tried to explain the benefits of using animals.”
Controlling weeds with goats and other animals allows businesses and farmers to avoid using diesel fuel, herbicide and other technology that can either harm the land or actually encourage more invasive species to grow, said Gina Fickle, who founded Munchers On Hooves with her husband, Garrett.
Other weed control methods such as plowing can actually expose more dormant seeds and encourage further growth. By contrast, seeds ingested by goats are killed in their stomachs, reducing the likelihood of repeat problems, sources said.
The animals can also be used near waterways or in thick vegetation where mechanized equipment cannot reach.
“They can get right up in there and don’t have any problems,” Fickle said.
There’s also a cost savings from using goats over other traditional weed control technology.
Hiring Munchers On Hooves — which feeds and maintains the goats while they’re on a customer’s property — costs roughly $300 less per quarter acre compared to the labor, maintenance and depreciation costs of using conventional methods, Gooch said.
Now that the pilot program is complete, Gooch plans to work with upper management at WMU to involve the goats in a larger woodlot-management program.
“Our ultimate goal would be for the next three to five years to have them here every spring to clear that entire (16-acre) area,” Gooch said.
WMU’s biology and sustainability departments also are considering using the program for graduate work where students would study soil samples and examine how rapidly the invasive species grew back and if any native plants regained a foothold in the area.
“There’s opportunities on the land management side to generate some data and research out of this,” Gooch said.
A NEW INDUSTRY?
The Fickles began raising Boer goats seven years ago and experimented with using them to clear buckthorn, an invasive species of shrub, before officially forming their company in May 2016.
Three months later, Munchers on Hooves has a month-long waiting list and has had to recall its goats in for “maintenance” and rest, Fickle said. As their business grows, the couple plans to increase their herd from 20 goats to 100.
While goats and sheep have been used for years by ranchers in the western part of the U.S., farmers and other businesses elsewhere in the country have been slower to adopt them. To some extent, that has to do with the negative reputation goats have received over the years, Fickle said.
“Some people think that goats are going to cause havoc, jump on cars and things like that,” she said. “As long as they’re trained and know their job, they’re happy. … It’s more that you have to educate people.”
However, it’s likely that the use of goats and sheeps for weed management will continue to grow as more people realize their benefits, said Mike Metzger, a Jackson-based educator with the Michigan State University Extension.
In particular, farmers with goats could rent out their animals for grazing services and then harvest them to feed the country’s growing appetite for goat meat, Metzger said.
“If we had some people that got serious about this to not only clear the land but also raise the goats, there’s opportunity for that,” he said.
Amazon.com, the web-based retail giant, has already bet on goats becoming a larger part of customers’ weed management by offering “Hire a Goat Grazer” services in select areas. The service connects people with goat-renters and has three customer reviews, all with five stars, according to its website.
In Northern Michigan, Omena-based New Mission Organics LLC also uses animals to maintain its hop yard. The company has 11 Barbados Blackbelly sheep to eat weeds and subsequently fertilize a 30-acre section of its total 65-acre hop farm.
As an organic farm, New Mission uses the sheep instead of herbicides and other chemicals to control weeds.
“In an organic setting, they’re really the only way you can combat weeds on a large scale,” Tennis said. “There’s no way you can use a weedwhacker, or weird concoctions like peroxide that some people have used.”
In addition to sheep, New Mission Organics also uses cover crops and rototillers to control weeds, Tennis said.
New Mission Organics chose sheep instead of goats because goats would be more likely to eat the entire hop bine, whereas the sheep will only eat the leaves on the first three feet of the plant.
While sheep and goats may be an ideal weed-maintenance tool for organic farmers, they can also be a lot of work and costly to maintain, Tennis said.
“To be honest with you, you really need 10 sheep per acre to do a good job,” Tennis said.
On large farms, that can quickly become cost-prohibitive, not only for buying the animals — which cost around $100 each — but in sustaining them over the winter season.
“It’s a difficult situation: Do you want to grow hops or be raising sheep,” Tennis said. “We’d love to have 300 head of sheep, but we don’t have the time to do it. It would work on a large scale, but you’d really have to be dedicated because you’d have to grow your own feed for them. You’d have to get into the hay business because you couldn’t afford to winter them.”
Without growing feed for the sheep, it could easily cost $120 per animal to maintain them over the winter, he said.
However, businesses such as Munchers on Hooves could alleviate the majority of that long-term maintenance cost by renting out their goats, a practice common in other countries.
“They do this a lot in New Zealand,” Tennis said. “They’ll have neighboring sheep farms where they truck sheep into the hop yards 24/7.”