HIRING GOATS FOR WEED ABATEMENT--
IS CALTRANS "KIDDING?"
Even goats are smart enough to know that working for Caltrans District 7 is a good gig--if you can get it!
For working goats, this is their busy season. Winter rains have brought up roadside brush, making vegetation, shrubs and noxious weeds over-abundant.
District 7 Maintenance took its first nibble at sampling a growing popular method of natural weed abatement: goats. During a five-day test pilot program in mid-January, people and machines were put aside for a trial demonstration of nature’s weed-eaters on one very steep segment of the freeway roadside.
With five acres of dry brush, a slope and 56 goats (and two humans), the goats-for-weed abatement project took place on the eastbound SR-134 in Eagle Rock where the Maintenance Division initiated this experiment to measure the effectiveness of hiring goats to eat away roadside and hillside vegetation on Caltrans’ right-of-way.
“District 7 has had this innovative maintenance method on hold for several years, until adequate safety measures were in place to ensure the goats’ containment while on the job,” said Dan Freeman, Deputy District Director of Maintenance. “Safety is Caltrans’ number one priority for the public, our crews, contractors and this new breed, if you will, of contractors.”
Along with Doug Failing, District Director and Freeman, others involved in seeing this project into reality are Ed Siribodhi, Senior Landscape Architect and Wallie Jordan, Maintenance Manager, North Region. They all agreed that putting goats to work in specific places with very steep terrains that would be difficult to place work crews and machinery, could be beneficial in many ways and worth exploring further.
For the past ten years, more government agencies, private organizations, cities, counties and fire departments are using goats as weed abatement, including Caltrans District 4 (San Francisco/Oakland).
And why goats, as opposed to giraffes or people?
“Goats herd better. They’re easier than people to manage and maintain. They eat the problem and can work all day, until sunset. They don’t get poison ivy; they eat it,” according to Hugh Bunten, who with his wife, Sarah, own Nanny & Billy’s vegetation management company of Lakeview, Oregon. “There is no workmen’s compensation and most don’t complain. By using goats, raking, hauling and dumping debris is not required, which saves money,” continues Bunten pointing out several benefits of the goat method of weed abatement.
However, one of Caltrans’ hired “contractors,” Toby, the goat, was complaining and took the day off. “Toby is having a bad day. He really preferred his previous job eating on the Getty Museum’s hillside. He’s one of our more picky eaters,” says Bunten.
The need for vegetation control is driven primarily by safety issues, such as minimizing fire concerns and promoting visibility of traffic, highway structures, and wildlife. Other reasons for vegetation management include controlling noxious weeds and pests, promoting good drainage to minimize storm water run-off and erosion, and protecting pavement and roadway devices.
“On the first day, the goats ate the tops of the scrubs. By the fourth day, we’ll see evidence of their work. When goats nibble on the grass and weeds, it naturally breaks up the soil, allowing for better water absorption and less water run-off, which is important for securing a stable hillside,” says Bunten. “Human supervision is necessary to make sure that they don’t eat too much and go beyond the soil and break it down.”
The Buntens’ have been on the road with their “Nannys and Billys” since mid-2006, working at various locations in California with 56 Boer cross-breed goats, a breed that was imported from Europe to South Africa during the 19th century.
Their life among goats began for this husband and wife team upon receiving a goat as a wedding gift 29 years ago. As the family (of goats) grew, Sarah Bunten said she did all she could with all that the goats had to offer, including making milk, cheese and mowing. Then it was time to put “the kids” to work. Their other kids, two daughters who both attend the University of California, help their parents whenever they get the opportunity, according to Bunten.
District 7 Maintenance provided extra temporary fencing along the freeway guardrail during this project to ensure a contained area. The Buntens’ method of open-range herding is to walk with and talk to the goats. “The goats follow our voices, hand signals and body language and they obey Steve, the guardian dog. Goats are very smart, often even smarter than dogs,” says Bunten. “They have strong livers and four (yes, four!) stomachs in order to process and digest all the weeds, foliage and branches.”
In between jobs, the goats are given a two-day “purge” cycle, where they are fed alfalfa, to ensure that weed seeds are not transferred to other locations during the natural fertilization process.
Who says there’s no such thing a free lunch? Bunten says that despite the reputation of goats eating tin cans and straw hats, some of his kids, Toby especially, are finicky eaters. The menu, provided by Caltrans, was dry brush chaparral, including some noxious weeds, licorice, sumac, fennel, assorted grasses and even some pink bougainvillea. Bon appetite!