Goats to be tested on WMU campus as woodlot management tool

Contact: Jeanne Baron
Photo of two goats in a field.

The pilot project begins Sunday, July 10.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Hungry for a better way to control invasive plants damaging campus woodlots, Western Michigan University is launching a pilot project Sunday, July 10, that it hopes will be an environmentally friendly solution to controlling the unwanted vegetation.

The University will add Buba, Cinnamon, Diva and seven other goats to its landscape services staff for a week, providing the 10 rented eating machines with room and board as partial compensation.

This pilot project began with Nick Gooch, WMU horticulturist, who proposed bringing goats to campus to test their viability for helping to control invasive plant species infesting campus woodlots, particularly buckthorn, honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet and poison ivy.

"The current management practice to combat these species using labor, machinery and chemical herbicides is labor- and capital-intense and fails to improve the site to allow the native community to achieve balance and restore the ecosystem," Gooch wrote in his project proposal.

"Campus woodlots are going to continue to be attacked by invasive species due to the continued use and development of the sites by the campus community. WMU is an ideal place to lead a pilot project using goats for land management that has the potential to build on our already commendable sustainability record."

About the Goats

WMU's four-footed landscape crew is coming from Munchers on Hooves in Coldwater, Michigan, which services southern Michigan, northwest Ohio and northern Indiana. Owned by Garrett and Gina Fickle, the operation was selected through a bid process.

The goats will be contained and protected by a portable electric fence installed south of Goldsworth Valley Pond just below the Sindecuse Health Center. If clearing that initial test plot is successful, plans call for the goats to be moved to additional plots further west on the north side of the Goldsworth Valley section of the Ring Road.

Cleaning up more of the property on the back side of the pond will make the site a more useable and inviting green space.

"Our goats all have their own personalities and work together as a team in hard-to-reach places. Every site that they go to is seen by them as a new salad bar," says Gina Fickle, adding that goats can clear vegetation four feet up from the ground.

"They're friendly and used to working 24 hours a day, whether in the country or city. Noise doesn't bother them—they just kept on munching even with the recent fireworks."

She and her husband have been breeding and raising Boer goats for seven years and started using them last year to clear buckthorn on their property. Now, as they work to grow their Munchers on Hooves business, they try to educate the public about goats and what they can do for the environment.

For instance, Fickle explains that although goats will eat just about anything, they prefer weeds, vines and woody material over grass. Plus, the seeds of invasive plants aren't viable after passing through a goat's digestive system, so native plants have an easier time reestablishing themselves.

Plenty of Advantages

Goats have gained traction around the country the past several years as a sustainable and economical way of clearing overgrowth and ridding invasive plants from farms, private residences, and large public and commercial properties.

The animals have been a part of the Ottawa County (Michigan) Parks and Recreation Commission land management program since 2014, and the University of Michigan Golf Course rented goats last year for clean-up work. They also are being used successfully at major airports in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as at higher education institutions such as Clemson and Oregon State universities and the universities of Georgia and Wisconsin-Madison.

Gooch says it costs WMU about $1,618 to clear one-quarter acre using labor, machinery and herbicides, but hiring the new green lawn mowers will cost an estimated $1,280 per one-quarter acre. He says the goats' effectiveness will depend on topography and the variety and density of the plant species present, and in cases where there is especially aggressiveness vegetation, two or three repeat grazings could be necessary.

Goats are quiet, all-weather workers that have many advantages over heavy machinery, Gooch continues. Instead of compacting soil, they improve it by adding nutrient-rich manure to the surface, thereby creating an environment for beneficial plants and animals to thrive. In addition, they can clear problematic areas like steep slopes, ditches and stream banks; don't destroy beneficial plants unless overgrazing takes place; and leave sites fairly clean so less labor-intensive hand work is required to remove torn, tattered and uncut material.

For more information, contact Nicholas Gooch at nicholas.j.gooch@wmich.edu (269) 387-8557, visit munchersonhooves.weebly.com or contact Gina Fickle at (517) 403-2138.

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