Goats to the rescue | ParkRecord.com

Goats to the rescue

Dan Bischoff, Of the Record staff

Few things put fear into the stalks of noxious weeds.

Most of them are hardy, reproduce quickly and have no natural threat, said Colin Wilkinson, the noxious weed manager for Park City Mountain Resort.

They are the Genghis Khan of the plant world aggressively invading open areas in mass, taking over the land and putting up their flag, er flower.

"They can spread 46,000 acres or 10 square miles per day," Wilkinson said. "Noxious weeds are taking over."

Wilkinson says weeds create a loss of wildlife habitat, a decrease in land value, a reduction in recreation, increased soil erosion and disrupt native plant species, which can change the ecosystem.

Chemical herbicides can help slow weed growth, but chemical warfare is hardly an earth-friendly solution.

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There is a natural alternative, however, and it has grinding lower teeth, a narrow triangular mouth and a ravenous appetite.

Goats just might be a weed’s worst nightmare and Park City Mountain Resort just called for 75 reinforcements.

"They prefer the broad leaf plants because of the shape of their mouth," said Boyd Willoughby, owner of Willoughby Boer Goats in Coalville.

Willoughby said his goats they attack weeds like knapweed, thistle and whitetop with abandon, stripping the plants flowers and leaves. Grass, he said, is their last choice on the buffet table.

"By stripping it down, they eat the flower buds and that puts the plant into shock," Willoughby said. "By eating the flowers, it can’t go to blossom."

Park City Mountain Resort, the Summit County Noxious Weed Department, the Summit Cooperate Weed Management Area and the Utah State University Extension Service worked with Willoughby to bring his herd to the resort.

"We try to be good stewards and we are aware that we had a weed problem," Wilkinson said. "There’s a lot of infestation on the lower mountain. The goal in our weed control strategy is to keep our upper mountain free of noxious weeds and work down to bottom, because that’s where most of the problem was introduced."

In the past, Park City Mountain Resort has worked with the Summit County Noxious Weed Department. Wilkinson said this year they were exploring alternative options.

"In the past we used chemical or mechanical practices by pulling and digging or mowing an area," Wilkinson said. "Now we are trying biological control that’s using grazing goats to reduce seed stock."

Chemicals, Wilkinson said, are effective but some of the weeds are resistant and build up immunity.

"Those are the species that we try to eradicate as soon as possible," Wilkinson said.

Also, the resort thought visitors would enjoy seeing goats on the mountain.

"Since our area opened to tourists, visitors would be seeing sprayers or goats," Wilkinson said. "Any we’d rather they see goats."

Using machinery and manual labor to mow and pull weeds can cost lots of money and is time extensive. Wilkinson said the resorts wanted to utilize an environment-friendly treatment without employing an army of laborers.

At a Summit County weed meeting, Wilkinson said, Willoughby’s grazing goats came up as an alternative.

"We came up with the idea to try them out," Wilkinson said. "There is research shown that it’s effective. Part of it is for the public to see the goats in action and there is other ways to deal with noxious weeds instead of spraying."

The results, however, won’t be immediate.

"A one-time grazing won’t do it," Willoughby said. "To get the weeds to disappear, it takes a three-year program to kill the life cycle of the weed."

Even though it will take two or three years to kill the plant, Willoughby said, the weeds won’t seed and reproduce as much. When a goat eats a leafy spurge weed for example, 99.9 percent of the seeds and the plant are destroyed. Other animals will eat the seed and it will pass through them to be planted somewhere else. Goats will even eat all the poisonous plants because of an array of enzymes in their gut that detoxifies the toxin.

Because the goats will eat the leaves and flowers of the plant first, the weeds have a difficult time establishing a root system. It will not be able to photosynthesize while the grasses are untouched. The goats also provide a natural fertilizer for grasses.

"As the plant matter passes through them, it’s returned as fertilizer and it will sweeten the soil so native species have more nutrients to grow," Wilkinson said.

Willoughby said if a weed’s stems are cut off with a sharp blade, the plant will respond by producing more seeds making the plant denser. But, because of the way a goat feasts, it is unable to make more seeds.

The goat herd was introduced to the mountain June 5 and will continue to move in sections.

"They’ll go through an area and get it to a satisfactory level and we’ll move them to a different spot of need," Wilkinson said. "Later in the summer, they’ll be brought back to the areas for (the weed’s) secondary growth."

In only one week of grazing, the goats have done what was expected.

"I’ve been up there every day and they are eating themselves out of house and home," Willoughby said. "It’s remarkable how they are taking the weeds right down and leaving the grass.

Wilkinson is also happy with the voracious hoofed animals.

"They’ve stripped most of the plants down," Wilkinson said. "The nature of goats is they eat the broad leaf first before they move on to grasses. There’s a noticeable effect in the maturity of the plants."

Sterling Banks from the Utah State University Extension in Summit County, is conducting a study to determine if goats or herbicides are more efficient.

"There’s a small portion that has been plotted off for a scientific gathering," Wilkinson said. "(It will study) how the goats are going to work and the effectiveness of that versus chemical control."

After three days, Banks said the goats effect on the weeds was similar to the herbicide.

"They’ve basically done an excellent job on the thistles and knapweed, it took it right down to the ground," Banks said. "Preliminary observations look very promising. The herbicide looks good too but if we can get away from herbicides, all the better."

Wilkinson said the resort will have information kiosks in the plaza so visitors can learn more about the goats, noxious weeds and what they can do to help. Visitors are welcome to see the goats and take pictures. But, visitors are cautioned not to touch the electric fences or the animals.