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Herds get paid to graze

Eric Weisbeck had one big problem on the 17,000-acre community pasture he manages — brush was taking over.

Brian Payne had a simple solution — 700 of his goats.

“And then when he told me that I wouldn’t have to do a whole bunch of fencing, I was even more in favour of that,” said Weisbeck, pasture manager of Wolverine AESB, a PFRA pasture established in 1941.

One summer of goat grazing was enough to set the wolf willows back dramatically and there’s hardly a poplar branch below what a goat can reach standing on its hind legs. The best part of all, was that the goats left the grass more or less alone for the 1,350 cattle owned by 45 local patrons.

“I’m hoping to make this a long-term thing and hopefully move the goats to other spots throughout the pasture,” Weisbeck said at the recent Multi-Species Grazing Conference.

Payne, who camped out all summer in a rustic van on a hilltop next to a picturesque lake, calls it “bare-naked goating” and a great opportunity to scale up a flock without spending big dollars on land.

“The opportunity that this provides all of us is huge,” he said.

Multi-species grazing essentially combines the leaf- and weed-browsing tendencies of goats with the grass-munching nature of cattle. It’s a win-win, but first cowboys need to be educated about the advantages, said Payne.

Another obstacle is goats’ reputation for being environmentally destructive, but that’s where herding comes in, he said.

“We want to displace that myth,” said Payne. “You actually can improve your carrying capacity by getting rid of the brush and increase income on your ranch by adding another enterprise.”

Another enterprise

Striking a partnership with a cattle operation or providing a “browsing service” for municipal governments could be one way for young people without deep pockets to get into agriculture, he added.

Herding goats could be highly lucrative — as much as $1 per doe per day for grazing invasive species, he said.

“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, he said.

Donna Lindblom, who has operated Rocky Ridge Vegetation Control with husband Conrad for 13 years, has earned that kind of money grazing reforested cutblocks in the mountains of British Columbia.

When a local First Nations band was concerned about the effect of aerial spraying on their blueberry-picking grounds, they were hired by the logging company to open up the vegetative canopy that was hindering tree growth.

The goats went in like a “horde of locusts” and ate all the weeds and woody shrubs, she said.

With a herd of 1,500 goats, a few good saddle horses, guardian dogs and riders, they were paid up to $1.50 per head/day. That lucrative work has dried up recently because of a slump in forestry, but the Lindbloms are branching out into greener pastures, grazing ski hills, clearing thistles from city parks and areas with heavy weed problems such as gravel pits.

This past July, her outfit has hired by the city of Kamloops to graze invasive toadflax in a city park, and now there is talk of hiring them on as their “official herd” for five years to clear up a neglected 200-acre former penitentiary site overgrown with thistle.

“Cities want their own herd of goats that can first look after all their weeds within the city, then do other jobs as well,” she said.

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