Goats are becoming an accepted form of livestock throughout the west. Ranchers in Texas have long known that goats can be economically run on marginal rangeland. Even in the productive, rainforests of New Zealand, goats are run in conjunction with cattle and sheep and every inch of the available rangeland is utilized. In New Zealand, where it is a constant battle to beat back the returning vegetation and the English-style gorsch hedges gone wild, goats are the second wave of combatants. After the bull dozers have withdrawn and the fires have died down, deliberate overstocking with hungry goats will utilize not only the biomass which has just been uprooted, but they will control the return of the undesirable bushes and the onslaught of weeds which is bound to occur. After several seasons of goat grazing, the newly claimed land is ready for plowing and planting to grass so the more sedate species such as sheep and cattle can peacefully graze.
But in places like Wyoming, we never had rainforests, at least never in recorded history. What we do have is a varied topography consisting of lush, wet and fertile bottomiands in broad valleys that give way to gentle and then steeper uplands. Finally we ascend into rocky outcroppings or steep, heavily forested slopes. In this day and age of multiple use on Federal land and concerned stewardship on private lands, goats can be a valuable tool for managing the range.
Historically, Wyoming was a desert grassland. The short-grass prairie ecosystem supported vast herds of bison and antelope. In the late 1 800's, it was discovered that cattle, and later sheep, could be successfully overwintered on the Laramie Plains and a new industry was born: Ranching. Cattle replaced the vanished bison herds and grazed the nutritious and abundant grasses. However, the age of barbed wire was also upon us. Instead of having the herds drift with the weather or migrate deliberately through the plains, the cattle were restricted to their home ranch or were grazed communally on the Federal lands. Each Fall the herds were gathered and returned home. The land in certain areas became overgrazed immediately, while other areas took longer. The vegetation of Wyoming has been changed. The vast grasslands are now dotted with invading sagebrush and snakeweed, the meandering rivers are lined with bright yellow spurge or prickly thistles. Man has changed the ecosystem. Goats can help to change it back. Goats are browsers. They evolved in the high, dry, wintry Himalayas and are well suited for life in the American West.
They will select the more nutritious woody stems of bushes and the leaves and flowers of weeds over grasses and clover. They can be used to eliminate leafy spurge along waterways where chemical spraying is banned. They will nibble away at growing "jungles" of sagebrush, controlling, but not eradicating them. Thistles along irrigation ditches are favorite grazing areas. But, as with all tools, goats must be carefully used. An unmanaged herd will selectively graze favored brush species such as mountain mahogany and bitterbrush to the detriment of that resource. These brush species normally occur on steep slopes in the foothills of our Federal lands. Goats should not be grazed here. Sheep and cattle might successfully utilize this common resource, but only if they are actively herded, preventing them from overutilizing the available grasses and destroying pristine mountain meadows and crystal water sources.
On private ranches there is always some marginal land. Goats can play an important role to maximize range utilization. Both cattle and sheep are lowland animals. Given the choice, they will stay in low, protected areas, grazing on the soft grasses found there. They move slowly, covering no more than 2 or 3 miles in a day. Cattle consume at least 25 pounds of forage per day; sheep consume about five and have been known to uproot the clumps of grass. Goats, on the other hand, prefer the high and windy slopes and rocky outcroppings where cattle and sheep only use after the grass in the bottomlands is gone. Goats travel up to six miles, eating about four pounds of forage per day and are very selective with their prehensile upper lip. They nibble around the sharp thorns of the four-winged saltbush. They daintily remove the interior of a mammillaria cactus. They strip a sharp yucca and dig up the roots. Weeds in flower are their favorite and they will strip a Canadian thistle that is about to bloom to a two inch high stalk overnight.
It makes good sense to use goats on the marginal rangelands and in badly weed infested lowlands.
So think about using goats on weeds or on marginal range. They can return your investment.
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Goat Health, Nutrition and Management
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