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   Date: 8/14/09 Bookmark and Share

Praxis Profile: Herding Goats in Montana

By Laura Jean Schneider ’10

As a Landscape Studies minor, I’m interested in creative and ecologically sound solutions to controversial landscape issues. So when I discovered Terra Vita Grazing and Consulting, an alternative weed management company based in Wyoming, I inquired about a summer internship with the owners, Brandon and Brandy Dalton. They were receptive to the idea, but funding was an issue. I applied for funding with Smith’s Praxis program, and one month later headed to Two Dot, Montana, where I began my job helping herd more than 900 doe and kid goats on a 20,000-acre ranch.

It’s hard to convince people that weeds aren’t necessarily bad. They are a natural part of biodiversity, after all, and completely eradicating them would be harmful. However, when invasive species compete with native species the landscape can alter drastically, changing habitat and upsetting delicate ecosystems. In many parts of Wyoming and Montana, the constant drought and subsequent brittle conditions provide the exact environment that gives hardier invasive plants—such as many weeds—an advantage.

A goatherd under Schneider's charges devours Leafy Spurge weeds on a Montana hillside.

Fortunately, goats are perfect for managing weeds in these conditions. Plants like Death Camas, (Zigadenus nuttalli A.), which is fatal to domestic stock, and invasive species like Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula) are no match for goats. Goats can tolerate toxic alkaloids and digest weed seeds so completely that they are no longer able to germinate, halting weed spread. Goats also strip the bark of invasive shrubs and devour leaves, plants stalks and flower heads, severely stressing undesirable plants.

There are several ways to maximize weed grazing. Loose grazing is best for large areas with low to moderate weed infestation. A working dog is essential for this method: from experience I learned it is impossible to direct a scattered herd of goats on foot without a dog’s help. After a day of loose grazing the herd is penned in a temporary electric fence for the night.

In addition to keeping the goats safe from predators, penning is also a grazing tool. Areas of dense weed infestation need more impact than loose grazing can provide. Concentrating the goats in a small area ensures that manure and organic material (such as trampled grass and weeds) gets thoroughly worked into the soil. Over time, this changes the composition of the soil itself, allowing native species to compete with invasive weeds.

Every aspect of this job, from having to bottle-feed “bums” (orphaned kids) to trouble-shooting job sites, has helped me appreciate the process that healthy, balanced land requires. Through the course of my job, I’ve changed my emphasis from focusing on weeds to focusing on soil. It’s most satisfying to see the weeds disappear, but building healthy soil is the critical contribution to renewing native biodiversity.

Herding goats taught me that healthy, weed-free land is possible. And it all starts from the ground up.


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