To get rid of a bad weed, get its goat. The bad weed is leafy spurge, a root-creeping, seed-spitting scourge of farmers and ranchers. It drains the life out of pastures. Cattle won't touch the stuff.
Angora goats, on the other hand, like nothing better than to purge the spurge scourge. The goats, famous for hair that can be spun into fine sweaters, like the weed so much they will eat only that and leave succulent grass behind for cattle to graze.
"These goats look like the perfect natural, biological control for leafy spurge," says Randy Dovel, an agronomist at OSU's Klamath Experiment Station, as he watches the animals at work on a summer day on a ranch near Malin in southern Oregon, a few miles from the California border.
The ranch's owner, Rich Sacchi, has spent four years and more than $100,000 on chemicals trying to control leafy spurge on 700 acres. His attempts have proved futile. "The chemicals were a joke," he says.
Then OSU researchers and extension specialists brought 80 Angora goats to Sacchi's place. The goats were on loan from OSU's Department of Rangeland Resources to Lesley Richman, weed control coordinator for the Burns district of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. It wasn't long before Sacchi was grinning from ear to ear.
"The first five days I wouldn't have given 50 cents for the lot," he recalls. "But then they got used to the weed and went crazy!"
In the world of weeds, few are as noxious or obnoxious as leafy spurge. Introduced to North America in the 19th century, the plant now infests more than 1.5 million acres of grazing land in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, costing $13 million of foregone income to ranchers.
In Oregon the weed is a problem in several regions. For example, it is expanding at an alarming rate along the Crooked River in central Oregon. And it infests ranches along the Lost River, which meanders 100 miles from Clear Lake in Modoc County, California, north to Klamath County, Oregon, then west and south to Siskiyou County, California. Most of these infestations are concentrated along the upper third of the Lost River in Oregon's Langell Valley.
"Spurge has been around here for years," says Rodney Todd, a Klamath County extension agent who is coordinating the goats-versus-spurge experiments. "It has never been controlled and continues to increase slowly. Wherever it goes, leafy spurge causes problems."
Because spurge is a noxious weed, control is mandated by federal and state law and by county ordinances. Control can cost a lot of money, as Sacchi will tell you. In fact, spurge was the reason he got his ranch in the first place. Weed damage to its pastures got so bad and weed control costs were so high that the previous owner was forced to give up the ranch to the county for payment of taxes. Sacchi bought the ranch in 1987 "for pennies on the dollar" at a sheriff's auction, then proceeded to sink thousands of dollars into a futile chemical weed control effort.
Well aware of that futility was Vince Belleci of the Klamath County Department of Public Works. Belleci is now in charge of noxious weed control for the county. As early as 1981, when he was a pesticide applicator for his department, he spotted the spurge infestation on what is now the Sacchi ranch and urged control efforts.
Belleci left the Department of Public Works in 1985 and didn't return until 1995. By then the weed had really gotten out of hand.
"The spurge must be on at least 100 properties in this county," Belleci says. "I bet the county and private landowners have spent close to a million dollars, not including man-hours, trying to control it."
The insidious weed has been in the Klamath area a long time. Francis Roberts, director of the county's Department of Public Works, says his relatives used to own the Sacchi place, "and they had leafy spurge 50 years ago."
Slowly but surely the weed gripped more and more land, sapping pastures as it went. Costly chemicals could not keep it in check.
"It was Vince (Belleci) who called our attention to Rich Sacchi's dilemma and suggested we try something other than chemicals," Todd says.
One reason chemicals don't work very well on spurge is because the mature weed has roots that reach 10 to 15 feet deep. On top of that, the weed spits its seeds. As seed pods dry, the pod walls squeeze together, producing a pressure that propels the seeds up to 15 feet, and even farther in the wind.
That isn't all. The weed has a creeping habit. Underground masses of roots called rhizomes tenaciously grip the soil and make the weed super-tough to get rid of. The root systems are so complex, it's difficult to get complete chemical uptake when herbicides are used. And tillage is ineffective.
"I put it in the same category with Canada thistle and morning glory, but even tougher to control," Todd says.
Leafy spurge also is spread by water runoff and by animals. (Dovel says the goats will be freshly sheared when they finally leave the Sacchi ranch to make sure weed seeds in the wool don't end up at someone else's place.)
Once established, leafy spurge displaces other vegetation. So it keeps spreading, in spite of substantial control efforts.
Ah, but the yellow-flowered plant gets mowed down in a hurry by hungry Angora goats.
"They treat the spurge just like dessert," Sacchi says.
To make his point, he fashions a 100- by 300-foot paddock with lightweight mesh fence, then opens the gate and lets in the 80 goats.
"Did you see that!" he exclaims as the goats run into the fresh spurge and begin chomping. In an hour, there's no more yellow. In two hours, the goats have been moved to another paddock.
What Sacchi was seeing has been documented in scientific journals. Dovel says studies by land grant university and USDA scientists show goats not only prefer spurge over other pasture vegetation, but they also have rumen (stomach) microbes that can neutralize offensive compounds in leafy spurge. Likewise, the goats' livers are better able to break down these chemicals.
"Goats are the best livestock alternative for controlling leafy spurge," Dovel says. "Sheep have provided control in some places, but goats are better because they simply eat more of the spurge. Even if they don't kill the spurge, they weaken it for chemical control or keep it down enough that pasture grasses can still thrive."
So goats are great. But what do you do with them, other than having live weedeaters on your property? Todd and Dovel are watching to see how Sacchi and other ranchers can make the most money out of the Angora goats. The only market for mohair is in Texas, half a country away. "If we can get enough interest in Angoras and mohair, we could develop a market here," Dovel says.
Angoras are small as goats go, so they have little value as meat animals. But Lesley Richman, who manages the flock in the winter, is checking out crosses between Angoras and Boer goats from South Africa, which are known as meat goats.
Then, of course, there could be a "rent-a-goat" plan.
"I can't see why ranchers wouldn't pay to rent some goats to get rid of this weed," Sacchi says. "To me, the goats are a bargain." The proof was around him. As he looked down in the valley, he could see the neat, green grass where the goats had been and the sea of yellow where they had not.
Todd and Dovel delivered the goats on Memorial Day weekend. In four weeks, the 80 munchers defoliated 40 acres of leafy spurge. Cattle were now grazing the cleaned up fields. Apparently the goats and the cattle had worked out a deal. The goats ate only the leafy spurge. The cattle left the weed alone to concentrate on the grass.
"Multi-species grazing works," Todd says. "Now we are comparing continuous grazing with rotational grazing in which cattle and goats are moved from paddock to paddock after a few days, before they clip the forage too short."
Todd and Dovel have been awarded a grant by the Agricultural Research Foundation to study the use of goats and herbicides to control leafy spurge. Work supported by the competitive grant combines the efforts by OSU's Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station, the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners.
In the project, they are comparing management systems. On one 40-acre site, the goats graze continuously. Another site has no goats, and OSU scientists measure the impact of the leafy spurge on the pasture. On a third site, goats are rotated between four paddocks at prescribed intervals.
After one year of the two-year project, continuous grazing by the goats looks like the best control of leafy spurge and other broad-leaved weeds.
"We are anxious to try to control other noxious weeds like yellow star thistle with this method," Todd says, admitting he is optimistic about the prospect. "It is also possible that once the weeds are weakened by the goats, farmers and ranchers could get by with fewer or no chemicals to control them."
Dovel, who is from Texas, has been an Angora goat fan for 20 years. In Texas, he says, the goats control juniper, mesquite and invasive brush. In the Dakotas, Montana and other parts of the West, they are gaining a reputation for controlling leafy spurge.
"They are marvelous animals, much easier to herd and manage than other goat breeds," he says. "They are well adapted to this area, even though Oregon is at the northern edge of where they can be raised and they have to be protected from the cold after shearing."
The goats have to be protected from predators, too. For that, Dovel likes llamas. Two stand guard over the research herd to keep coyotes and other animals away. "The llamas have just this one drawback," Dovel mumbles, wiping llama spit off his face. But the nearby goats are content. Safe. And sated with spurge.