Got Weeds? Get Goats!

July 1, 2015, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

Got a field overgrown with noxious weeds? A hungry herd of goats might be just the solution.Do you have any park areas that are choked with noxious weeds, climbing vines and invasive plants? Do you ever think, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a safe, sustainable, long-term solution that not only controlled ALL the weeds, but that also returned the park areas to productive use?” Well, if you can find one of the small but growing businesses near you that provide a herd of hungry goats, your toughest weed control problems may be solved.

First, let us all agree that there are lots of definitions of “weeds.” A weed has been defined as a plant that is not growing where it is wanted, a plant that competes with cultivated plants, and, as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Many “weeds” are actually beneficial wildflowers with value to pollinators. However, no matter how we define a weed, we can all likely agree with Penn State University’s extension service that weeds are “plants whose undesirable qualities outweigh their good points.” 

In public-use areas of parks, the control of weeds and invasive plants presents a larger problem. The goals of managing for people, as well as for nature and other environmental benefits, may come into conflict when aggressive unwanted vegetation takes over public-use areas or otherwise diminishes opportunities to utilize parks in multiple ways. 

Many park and recreation systems have park areas that have become so infested with weeds, vines and invasive plants that such areas are all but lost to public use. Depending on the plant species growing in these parks, such areas may not even provide good habitat for wildlife and birds. 

In park areas where the weeds are virtually impossible to eradicate, spraying with herbicides is usually the last resort because it is the only means of controlling such vegetation. Many park and recreation agencies do spray with herbicides, although there is increasing reluctance to do so, especially in public-use areas. Agencies want to employ more sustainable practices and maintenance superintendents have become much more sensitive to the public’s wishes to reduce herbicide use. Parents and families would rather not have their kids and pets playing in areas that have been treated, even if all possible precautions have been taken.

Until recently, however, there have been few good alternatives to herbicide use. The city of Fayetteville, Arkansas, has had to deal with the spread of certain invasive and indigenous plant species in their parks and they have started looking for innovative solutions as well as traditional methods. The Fayetteville Parks and Recreation Division has mobilized a corps of citizen volunteers, according to Kristina Jones, their volunteer and community program coordinator, who donated more than 1,400 hours last year in their Adopt-A-Park program. “We are looking for innovative ways to tackle these weeds. If we don’t there is just no way we can keep our parks usable and enjoyable,” she says.

Enter the goats. Connie Rieper-Estes, a local owner of a small goat farm and business named Greedy Goats Green Yard Care, saw a Facebook post about the park and recreation department doing invasive plant control with volunteers. “I clicked ‘like’ and one thing led to another and we connected,” Rieper-Estes says. A plan was devised to help with invasive plant control at Fayetteville Parks and Recreation properties, and Greedy Goats volunteered their herds in the Adopt-a-Park program. “Goats will eat just about everything when they are let loose in an area,” Rieper-Estes says. “They just love poison ivy — it is like candy to them. And they love Chinese privet, bush honeysuckle, vine honeysuckle, Callery pear — you name it, they’ll eat it.” 

Byron Humphrey, Fayetteville’s park maintenance superintendent, had heard about goats being used for vegetation control from a citizen in Stillwater, Oklahoma, so he was favorable to the idea. He said his park department didn’t want to buy goats themselves, but when Greedy Goats offered their services he was willing to give it a try. The site chosen for the goats’ initial salad bar was in one of Fayetteville’s more-frequented parks. It was a natural area on a steep slope that became overgrown and is now unmowable. “This project will get a lot of exposure and create a lot of awareness,” Humphrey says. 

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of the project is the public awareness and education opportunities created to highlight the impacts of invasive species. Volunteer coordinator Jones says, “We are capitalizing on this project to educate the public, some of whom have never even heard of invasive species.” She noted that the Fayetteville City Council is considering legislation to regulate invasive species so the timing of this project is very helpful. With significant media attention and buzz in the local community, people are learning not just about how goats can control vegetation, but about the impacts and economic damage that invasives can cause.

“According to my research,” says Rieper-Estes, “there are about 60 businesses like mine around the country.” John Sydnor, executive director of the Enrichmond Foundation in Richmond, Virginia, has been enthusiastic about using goats for overgrown landscapes in the city of Richmond’s parks and has helped coordinate several park projects, including one fully funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Depending on the size of Enrichmond’s projects, they have used one or two sheepherding dogs as guard animals. They even coined a new term for what they are doing —“goatscaping.” Presently, Sydnor says his company is working on a project to establish an apple orchard and using goats to clear an area totally overgrown with kudzu. His answer to what the best outcomes of goatscaping were for the Richmond Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities: “We are helping the city in a way they could not really do themselves. It’s environmentally friendly, and best of all, it has brought great publicity to our foundation and the city.”

One consideration for park agencies has been the cost of goatscaping, both direct and indirect. “We don’t know how to place a dollar value on this in order to compare it to the value of volunteer service,” Jones says, “but it has gotten a ton of attention.” Fayetteville is also evaluating the amount of time and resources needed to set up and monitor its program. Greedy Goats is providing all services, including set up of an inner electric fence and an outer orange safety fence, and bringing the goats to the site every day. They even brought a baby goat for kids to pet — no petting of the adult goats is permitted.

While Rieper-Estes has volunteered her goats through the Adopt-a-Park program, most other goat businesses simply contract with park and recreation agencies for their services. Rieper-Estes says, however, “We have already gotten business from this project. People called us and said, ‘This is exactly what I have been looking for. We don’t want to use poisons, and we don’t care how long it takes.’”

Goats may be the next big thing in invasive weed control in parks, but Sydnor of Enrichmond Foundation says, “We are now looking at donkeys. Not only do they eat the kudzu, but they are fantastic guard animals as well.”

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.