KLAMATH FALLS - Goats, nature's original weed eaters, apparently have the urge to purge Southern Oregon's scourge of leafy spurge.
Chemicals can't kill the plant. Cows won't eat it. But goats seem to think it's candy.
Randy Dovel, an agronomy researcher at Oregon State University's Klamath Experiment Station, and Rodney Todd, an agent in OSU's Klamath County Extension Office, discovered this while trying to restore a rancher's leafy spurge-devastated pasture. The 80 goats may succeed where other methods have failed.
"This rancher has already spent about $100,000 on chemicals trying to rid his 1,400 acres of this noxious weed," Dovel said. "Chemicals are expensive and only partially effective because the weed has such deep roots and has the ability to shatter, or spit its seeds 15 feet or more from the plant. Left unchecked, leafy spurge will quickly take over an entire pasture."
The angora goats eating the weed in the experiment are on loan from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and OSU's Department of Rangeland Resources.
Goats are well suited for eating leafy spurge because they have a stomach and liver better adapted to handling some of the compounds in the plant that make it distasteful to other animals. Also, while sheep and cattle prefer to graze grass, goats are browsers and seek out leafy weeds and shrubs.
Even goats can't kill leafy spurge, but they can weaken it and eat its flowers before they can set seed, Dovel said. Spread is reduced and other grasses have a chance to establish themselves.
"Not only do angora goats eat leafy spurge, they tend to prefer it to anything else," Dovel said. "When we open up a new paddock, they run right in there just like you rang a dinner bell."
Since they seem to thrive on leafy spurge, the OSU researcher speculates that a rent-a-goat or goat exchange program might develop between ranchers and goat owners.
One such program worked between New Mexico and Idaho, he notes. A goat rancher trucked his goats up to southern Idaho because drought had diminished the goat's forage area in New Mexico. The southern Idaho rancher's land had been devastated by leafy spurge. It was an even trade - food for weed control.
Most likely, goats won't be the complete cure to the spread of leafy spurge, Dovel said. However, they have proven their worth as part of a leafy spurge control program that may include grazing sheep and goats early in the season, and some chemical control and grazing cattle later in the season.
The first tests involved angora goats, but recently Dovel added a small herd of cashmere goats to the experimental pasture. He thinks they'll be prolific leafy spurge eaters but has no data on them yet.
One challenge is finding additional uses for the goats.
"Although the goats are good at their job (weed eating)," Dovel said, "angoras are not ideal meat goats and can be hard to market."
Last spring Lesley Richman, a BLM weed specialist and manager of the angora herd, crossed the angoras with South African Boer goats in an attempt to get heftier goats for the goat meat market, Dovel said. While the young angora goat kids looked like poodles, the angora-Boer crosses looked like small sheep by mid-summer.
"There still isn't a big market for goat meat," Dovel cautioned. "However, in ethnic niche markets where 'cabrito' (young goat) is popular, ranchers can get about $50 per head. Considering the reduced amount of land and feed needed for goats, this compares favorably to cattle in profitability."