When Sue Wika bought her farm in Ashby, Minnesota, it was overrun with weeds. “You could barely move through the oak savanna,” she recalls. “So much prickly ash, and buckthorn too.” It’s all the same scene—from her prairie expanse in Grant County to the hardwood forests of the Driftless Area—invasive plants are taking the soil hostage in every part of the state.
Burdock. Ragweed. Stinging nettles and Canada thistle. Nightshade, hogweed, and multiflora rose. Honeysuckle and garlic mustard. Buckthorn. Lord, all the buckthorn. And when we fight back, we get physical. We combat these plants. They’re invasive. It’s an invasion. Let’s rev up the chainsaws. Get a Bobcat with a grinder to plow under the gnarly patches. Dab the fresh stumps with herbicide or just spray it all over.
Sue Wika had a different strategy, one that would tend to both the needs of her vegetation and her business. It’s one ecologists believe is in keeping with the natural history of Midwest vegetation, and one that public lands managers and private landowners are warming to. They just call in a herd of goats.
“We raise and train goats to be landscape managers, if you want to call them that,” Wika says. “Ruminants can use these high lignin foods that we omnivores can’t digest.” Not only do goats love the taste of buckthorn and burdock, but these plants also tend to grow at a goat’s eye level, right where they browse for a snack.
“In the last few years,” Wika explains, “DNR, [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife, and nonprofits that are looking at environmental and land issues, they’re looking for ways to improve the landscape, but are savvy about doing things that have a very small fossil fuel footprint, and using non-chemical approaches. It’s hard getting labor to do things like this. But goats work for free.”
To eradicate buckthorn, you have to get at the roots. When goats graze a patch of buckthorn, they defoliate the plant instead. They force it to spend the carbohydrate reserves in its root system to restore the leaves. If a goat grazes the same plant multiple times in a season, it will deplete the roots, leaving it to wither and die over the winter.
It’s an elegant solution, though one just beginning to make sense for businesses and government. A farmer like Wika might have a smaller herd of goats to manage her own land and rent out to those nearby. Only a few businesses in the state actually transport and manage large herds to graze over multiple acres. And it might take millions of goats to make a dent in the stranglehold buckthorn has on our land.
But that realization is exactly what may explain the problem and imply its solution. Consider those plants that buckthorn is crowding out: the native grasses and flowers, the ferns and shrubs. The ones that helped mitigate floods and prevent erosion, ones that fixed carbon and supported wildlife. Those grasses are what a researcher might call “graze obligate”—they were managed and nurtured during prehistory by tens of millions of bison and elk.
“The biotic community includes animals. It’s not just a plant community. Vegetation doesn’t make sense without herbivores,” says ecologist Stephen Thomforde. Remove grazers from the land, as we’ve done over the last couple hundred years, and large trees will migrate down from steep slopes to prairies where nothing impedes their growth. Savanna becomes forest, but our view of nature remains. Those look like healthy forests, right? There are lots of things growing!
What we don’t recognize is that the land is now primed for invasives—those species that thrive on the excess nitrogen fixed in the soil, the same nitrogen that would have otherwise been fixed in the bodies of millions of grazers. We had millions of mammals doing the DNR’s job before there was a DNR. Without them, the weeds came creeping in.
It’s the absence of those animals, Thomforde says, that should be a red flag. “You have that gene, that impulse, somewhere deep inside you that says, ‘Where there aren’t animals, the land is obviously no good.’” And it’s not just the grazers who are absent. Where are the insects that live in those grasses? The birds that eat the insects? We know ecosystems can act like a Jenga tower—you remove one piece and the whole thing can topple. A return to grazing could help rebuild that basic natural structure, perhaps just one of many ways to begin slotting those pieces back into place.
And so a few entrepreneurial goatherds are making grazing their business. Kyle Johnson co-owns Diversity Landworks. He sends a herd of Kiko goats to areas he’s cordoned off into a paddock with a length of electric netting, which is barely necessary.
“The goats respect the fence if there’s food inside of it,” he says. “We put the goats in there, make sure they have water, and watch what they’re doing in terms of defoliating the target species. We’ll see them start to girdle the buckthorn and honeysuckle, and we’ll know they’re ready to go, and we’ll move them to the next paddock.”
Thus far, he has rented his goats to the DNR, the University of Minnesota, and Metro-area parks districts, though goat-based land grooming is still a hard sell to the state. There’s not enough data on the efficiency of goat grazing, and no good comparison on how much it costs versus traditional strategies. It can also be hard to know how many passes with a goat herd it will take to fully clear an area. This is all much-needed information with tax dollars on the line.
“There’s so much land and only so much money,” says Jake Langeslag, owner of Goat Dispatch in Faribault, who notes that the public sector is slowly warming to the goat solution. “Ultimately I’m trying to help the state. I’m still in the growing phase, but once I get to a bigger size, we’ll see where costs are. I want to be marketable and bring costs down for the state.” Officials are starting to see its merits. Impressive results have been achieved on tricky landscapes—rocky outcroppings and steep slopes where manual labor is difficult, but goats are right at home.
As business opportunities increase, herders are exchanging notes on the benefits of goat grazing. Karl Hakanson, from the University of Minnesota, runs a network of goat-minded entrepreneurs through the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. “We want to see if we can use livestock to mimic how nature does things with hooved animals, take care of the landscape, and see if we can foster and improve some businesses to that end,” he explains. “[Goats] do it for free, they do it without pollution, they do it the way it’s supposed to be done.”