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What’s wrong with this picture?

Every once in a while an idea comes along that makes so much sense, it’s crazy.

A case in point is the concept of using goats to beat back the bush and other invasive species on pastures. Instead of paying for pasture land, some goatherds are being paid up to $1.50 per goat per day to graze other people’s land. Now that’s crazy.

But for the landowners, it’s well worth it.

In Saskatchewan, where a goat-browsing service is being used to clean up poplar and other invasive brush at the AESB Wolverine Community Pasture for $1 per doe per day, there are some rather astounding opportunities for revenue emerging.

“So, if I have 1,000 does for 90 days, that’s 90 grand for camping out all summer,” and that doesn’t include the value of the fall kid crop, goatherd Brian Payne told a recent Multi-Species Grazing Conference near Humboldt, Sask.

Goats tend to eat the things cattle don’t, so it’s possible for the two to coexist to the mutual benefit of both. In fact, research is showing grazing goats and cattle together can actually increase the carrying capacity of pastures.

Overlay that against the worsening problem of leafy spurge in Manitoba.

According to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, the losses in beef production due to lost grazing capacity alone amount to more than half a million dollars per year. There is also reduced land values, lost natural habitat, and effects on water quality and soil.

Surveys have shown that up to 1.2 million acres of Manitoba is infested already, which is a ninefold increase over two decades. It’s moving along roadsides and across what little remains of natural prairie, choking out the native species.

Chemical control is expensive, not terribly effective and not possible in terrain that can’t be reached by a sprayer.

Burning or tilling it have had limited success and are not very environmentally friendly. At best, producers are able to achieve modest control using a combination of herbicides and cultural methods.

However, grazing spurge with goats and sheep has proven to be an effective means of controlling its spread and reducing its dominance so other plant species can compete with it better. The weed is noxious to cattle, but nutritious for goats and sheep, who are unaffected by the milky latex it produces.

“Although grazing in itself does not kill the plants, it will prevent seed production, and if grazed at a sufficient intensity, will lead to a depletion of root reserves and an associated decrease in plant vigour,” a MAFRI fact sheet on controlling leafy spurge says. “This will result in a reduced ability of the weed to compete against grass species, as well as withstand effects of herbicides or other control means.”

So we have a well-established and worsening problem that is sucking millions of dollars out of the province’s economy. We have a control mechanism that is effective, economical and environmentally friendly. And it involves a species of livestock for which market demand is on the rise, particularly among newcomers to Canada.

Consider this against the backdrop of other animal agriculture in Manitoba. It’s been well established in the past few weeks that our hog industry is in crisis, again, because of high costs and razor-thin margins.

Now a new report from the Canadian Agricultural Policy Institute is telling us our beef industry is dying a slow death, stuck in a competitive rut with no clear idea of how to get out of it. Canada’s cow herd has declined by 20 per cent — more than a million head — since 2005, making it questionable whether Canada will retain the critical mass necessary to meet future market opportunities.

One can envision nomadic goatherds — possibly university students as either summer employees or entrepreneurs — roaming the Prairies, rotating from spurge patch to spurge patch helping landowners get the problem under control while earning enough to live through the winter without student loans.

It’s entry-level animal agriculture with no requirement for multimillion-dollar production complexes or manure storage. Operators don’t have to buy or lease land; they get paid to use someone else’s.

Equipment costs would be minimal, perhaps some herding dogs, and a form of transportation such as a horse or ATV, and a camper for shelter. With the communications and Internet capacity of today, they could even stay in touch with their friends.

A crazy idea? Maybe. But when you read what’s happening to the rest of animal agriculture in this province these days, you have to wonder which is worse, being crazy or depressed.

The only thing wrong with this picture is that no one here is trying it.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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