Goats gain popularity with ranchers

PALMER, Neb. (AP) - September 8, 2008

Instead of turning up their noses, Wendell's hairy friends stuck their muzzles in the weed salad and have kept them there for two weeks.

"They love it," Wendell said Friday while surrounded by the herd of goats munching on weeds on a small plot at Reeves' hilly 1,440-acre ranch.

Like an increasing number of cattle ranchers - who for decades have used chemicals and other means to fight stubborn weeds - Reeves is giving the walking weed eaters a shot. He invited the goats to his spread as part of a project with the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition.

In the biological buffet line of a pasture, cattle shun weeds in favor of grass.

But goats go straight to invasive, tough-to-control weeds like leafy spurge musk thistle that can choke out grasses and ruin a pasture for cattle grazing.

Even cedar trees, which ranchers despise for their ability to overtake pastures, are a favorite entree for goats.

"You can raise them on what everyone else classifies as junk - they eat it willingly," Wendell said.

He said goats choose the junk over grasses, process them, destroy the seeds - and their waste is good for the soil.

Among farmers and ranchers, goat grazing still isn't close to replacing chemicals as the preferred method of keeping weeds in check, which is required by state laws.

But sightings of the sturdy creatures, whose unusual eating habits and four-chambered stomachs make some consider them the garbage disposal of the animal kingdom, are becoming more common, as are sheep.

"In the last three to five years, the number of goats has increased," said Dana Larsen, range specialist for the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Last year, the agency started a program to help ranchers pay for such services.

"People are looking for a non-chemical, non-mechanical means of controlling weeds," Larsen said.

Chemicals and other traditional means of weed control are "a direct cost with no return," Larsen said. "With goats ... they may at least get a product."

The American Meat Goat Association said goats were one of the first animals to be domesticated, about 10,000 years ago. Goats are extremely adaptable, able to live in the high altitudes of the Himalayas, the humid tropics and bone-dry desert climates.

A hundred years ago, goats were more prevalent, raised for their milk and meat. But as the demand for beef increased, cattle replaced goats on many pastures across the country.

Now a movement is afoot to bring goats back to help the habitat of the cattle.

The number of goats used for meat and milk still dwarfs those mainly used for weed control, according to Bob Sims, director of the American Meat Goat Association.

But that's changing, as Amy Jeanroy and her husband Cal can attest. They raise about 25 goats near Ravenna, using the milk from their goats to make cheese.

Lately, neighbors have been asking for more than cheese to put on their crackers.

"We've had a lot of people interested in using our goats for weed management," said Amy.

Wendell, who raises organic hay with her husband at their ranch in the Sandhills when not helping people with her goats, sees more than a paycheck when she watches her goats work.

"There's nothing more satisfying than putting them on a patch of what people perceive as weeds and getting rid of them while the goats get fat and shiny," she said.

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