- Grow a healthy forage sod. Up to 95% of weed control can come from a thick, vigorous sod that prevents weed establishment and discourages soil erosion. Soil test, fertilize, clip, aerate and, if possible, irrigate pastures. Manage livestock grazing by not allowing over-grazing and keep animals off wet fields.
- Seed areas around troughs, salt blocks, barnyards and roadsides. Open soil is an open invitation to weeds. New weeds often show up in these places, so keep an eye out for bare patches and seed these areas at least annually.
- Clean your equipment to prevent spreading weeds. Brush or hose down equipment from weed-infested pastures before entering new pastures. Monitor your cleaning areas for new weeds.
- Control weeds spread by flooding. Weed seeds can float on water, so install seed screens on outlet pipes and control weeds near irrigation ditches.
- Quarantine animals new to property or pastures. Animals can deposit weed seeds with their manure and start new infestations. If animals have been grazing in a weed-infested pasture, keep livestock in the barnyard for a few days before moving them to a clean pasture. Be sure to thoroughly compost the manure before spreading it to ensure weed seeds have been killed.
- Buy weed-free seed. A pound of purchased seed can contain hundreds of weed seeds. Ask to see the detailed seed label from your supplier, not just the label that is on the bag. This detailed label will least the weeds present by species. This way you can select weed seeds already on your land and avoid introducing new ones.
- Buy weed-free hay. Grow your own hay, inspect grass stands prior to harvest, buy high quality hay or buy from a reliable source. By following these practices, you will bring less weed-contaminated hay to your property.
- Cooperate with neighbors in controlling weeds. A neighboring field of weeds gone to seed can invade your property. Additionally your weed spray may drift and damage the fruit trees on your neighbor's property. Their problem is your problem and vice versa.
The additional moisture and more moderate temperatures offered by spring and fall make them the optimal seasons for seeding your pastures. In addition, be conscientious about weed management to maximize your fields' productivity.
Using Goats to Control Weeds
Goats are browsers. They actually prefer the taste of shrubs, trees and broadleaf plants like weeds instead of grass. This is especially true later in the summer and fall as the brush and broadleaf weeds tend to hold their nutritional value longer than grasses. Timing is a critical component of targeted grazing. If you want to favor grasses for your other livestock - or your own enjoyment - wait until the grasses are more mature and the goats will focus on broadleaf weeds and shrubs, allowing the grasses to go to seed.
Thorns of plants such as green briars and blackberries pose no problem for goats. Additionally goats are nimble and can stand on their hind legs to access difficult to reach weeds, they produce minimal soil compaction and their droppings quickly decompose and improve soil. However, be aware that too many goats in an area can erode sensitive slopes and banks and goats should not be allowed in or near fish-bearing streams.
Note: if you are milking your does, you will not want to turn them out onto weed patches. The flavors of their forage will be passed through to the milk and tansy ragwort can appear in the milk. Keep your milking does on high quality, controlled feed sources. All goat breeds but Pygmy goats are suitable for clearing land.
Cattle and horses prefer grasses, which promotes the growth of broadleaf plants and shrubs. Sheep prefer broadleaf plants and grasses, which promotes shrub growth. Goats, on the other hand, as browsers, prefer broadleaf and woody plants, which allows grass growth by eliminating competition from shrubs and woody plants.
Some weeds and many landscape plants are harmful to livestock. There are some plants that are poisonous to livestock other than goats, such as yellowstar thistle. Other plants such as tansy ragwort, nightshade and peavine can be browsed in goats in limited quantities generally without problems. However, goats should not be turned out onto fields that consist primarily of these weeds as they will not be able to balance their diets and will consume too much of the weeds, which may cause problems.
Plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas and poison hemlock should be avoided entirely as goats do not inherently know which plants to avoid. However, ash juniper trees, knapweed, oxeye daisy, common tansy, Canadian thistle, scotch thistle are all fine, just be sure there is enough variety in the field to provide a nutritious diet.
Browsing goats can be ideal weed controllers in situations where they are rotated through the same pasture as cattle, horses and other grazing animals. By putting grazing pressure on the weed population, goats give grasses the advantage, allowing them to thrive. However, be prepared to be patient as it can take several years for pastures to improve due to residual seeds. Some seeds such as tansy ragwort, can stay viable for up to 25 years in the soil. Additionally, other considerations for pastures are soil fertility, pH, grass species, stocking rates and grazing by other livestock.
Plants poisonous to goats and care should be taken that they not consume them. These include:
Remember, regardless of whether you own goats for dairy purposes, meat, breeding purposes or simply as companions:
How many goats will you need?
The number of goats you need for your amount of land will depend upon the weeds are trying to eradicate. If a weed seed-bank is present, it may take persistent grazing. Goats will tackle mostly vine and woody-stemmed plants, but will browse on a wide variety of plants. For dense weed infestations, expect to apply an application of goats to a given area for multiple times for a few years before the land is sufficiently cleared.
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