Goats enlisted for weed control at Malmstrom
For the first hour or so, a herd of goats was barely visible among weedy overgrowth on the eastern side of Malmstrom Air Force Base.
But after arriving Monday afternoon, the Spanish Boer Cross goats will make quick of the patch that’s roughly a third of an acre before being moved to a neighboring section within 24 hours.
The goats are back at Malmstrom this year as part of the base’s weed management program, in conjunction with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For now, the herd consists of 200 mamas and 300 kids. The goats will be on Malmstrom for six weeks and another 400 adult goats are on the way to join the herd. Over that time, they’ll likely cover 800-1,000 acres.
The goats naturally prefer flowing plants, which are often non-native invasive species in Montana, said Lora Soderquist, the project manager from Prescriptive Livestock Services. Even with their natural affinity for those flowering weeds, the mamas might end up showing the babies some of the favorites. The goats can also be trained to eat noxious weeds by painting salt water on the leaves of the target plants, said Dr. Elin Pierce, of U.S. Fish and Wildlife and embedded at Malmstrom as the natural resources manager.
“It’s amazing how quickly they work,” Soderquist said.
In recent years, thorny invasive species like thistle and kochia have rapidly spread in areas of base often used for training exercises creating difficult conditions for physical training on the ground.
Goats will eat those plants and the three year project allows the goats to wear the seed bank out of the soul, reduce the root system for perennials and also improve the soil and encourage native species, Soderquist said.
She’s a project manager for PLS seasonally and is also an adjunct professor at Montana State University in the land resources and environmental sciences department.
For the goats, it’s a full-time gig and they travel the region managing weeds for ranches, farmers and more. Soderquist is also overseeing a herd in Bozeman this summer and said using goats is an effective approach in the west.
Most native plant species evolved with grazers, such as bison, and benefit from the grazing. For the invasive species in Montana, Soderquist couldn’t think of one that goats wouldn’t eat. Some of the noxious weeds have toxins that other livestock can’t process, but goats have large livers that have no trouble handling those toxins. Goats can also get by with less water, making them even more cost effective, Soderquist said.
“They’re one tool with many benefits,” Soderquist said.
The herder will stay with the goats, living in a camper on base, for the entire 6-week project.
The Air Force has directives to reduce herbicide use while also promoting pollinators, Pierce said.
Pierce and her team will come in behind the goats and seed with native species of plants to prevent weeds from growing back in any bare spots. She said she had about 1,000 pounds of native seed ready to go.
The herd will be moving toward the Combat Arms Training and Maintenance area while their range is down for the Fourth of July holiday. Weeds in that area often become dry and brittle in the fall, resulting in a fire hazard, Pierce said.
Malmstrom is leading the Air Force is using goats for weed control, though they were used for a few years in the late 2000s at F.E. Warren AFB.
The program is estimated to save $10,000 to $20,000 annually in personnel and herbicide costs, plus the goats also bring environmental benefits to the base and surrounding area by controlling noxious weeds and promoting native species, Pierce said.
Tordon and Roundup are expensive herbicides, plus the personnel costs and other associated costs and time that go along with the application, Pierce said. Those herbicides also have the potential to kill bees and other pollinators on and around Malmstrom, Pierce said.
“This is one way we can make sure to get the weeds without worrying that we’re killing the bees,” Pierce said.
The goats don’t really eat the grasses, their hooves decompact soils and their excrement is a fertilizer in a nutrient poor area, Pierce said.
A smaller herd was at Malmstrom for a few days last summer to demonstrate to base leadership the project’s potential, answer questions and address any concerns about having goats graze around nuclear operations. The project was approved not long after.
The program is contracted through FWS with funds from the AF Civil Engineering Center and paperwork snags delayed the start this year but Piece said they secured funds for two years and will be able to start earlier next year, making a bigger dent on young weeds.
People spraying herbicides are limited by terrain in some areas of base and also by weather conditions like Monday’s near triple digits temperatures and high winds.
Goats on the other hand, merrily ate weeds, drank a little water and some rested in the shade but Soderquist said they’d likely finish their work in the first pen within 6-8 hours.
“Goats are just so agile,” Pierce said. “One thing you can really bank on, is when they get here, the goats are going to do their job.”