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Livestock Grazing Can Be a Useful Tool for Fire and Weed Suppression

Over the years, On Pasture editor and weed-eating livestock trainer Kathy Voth has had a varied and interesting journey

Over the years, On Pasture editor and weed-eating livestock trainer Kathy Voth has had a varied and interesting journey. She describes her career path as similar to an ant's life.

"I just kind of run around until I find something I like, I take it home, and then run around some more looking for the next thing," says Voth.

During her time in Grand Junction, CO, she got her start working on the range by coordinating construction of a 150-mile mountain bike trail called Kokopelli's Trail. This eventually led to a job with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Public Affairs, and later on, a position as Science Liaison between the BLM and universities.

Along the way, Voth sparked an interest in goats. In short time, what began as an idea to train a pack goat morphed into a research study on how goat grazing might be an effective tool in reducing wildfire risk in suburban areas.

Voth's goat grazing research in Utah, which focused on gambel oak specifically, covered the gamut of logistics on how to implement successful grazing management for creating firebreaks.

"We found if you graze gambel oak three times in one season and then do it again the next year, you can actually change the structure of the stand," says Voth. "So, instead of continuous brush on a hill, which is really dangerous for firefighters, it becomes kind of a mosaic structure, what we call park-like stands."

During the study, Voth explains she was able to see her research in action. At one point, a fire broke out near the study location near Camp Williams National Guard Training Facility, just south of Salt Lake City.

Luckily, Voth describes, "Nothing bad happened, nobody got hurt, all the goats got hauled out of danger's way, and sure enough, we got to see that when you have a really hot fire moving fast with strong winds, the flames will actually blow up and stop at the edge where goats have grazed!"

Even more exciting, says Voth, "At one of the places where we'd been working, right next door to it, they had brought in a hotshot crew and they had built their own version of a firebreak that didn't stop the fire at all. But where the goats grazed, it did stop."

The key takeaways, says Voth, are that this method of grazing can be effective at deterring fires, but goats need to be managed and located with careful planning. There are also some difficulties. Goats can be challenging to contain and water availability in some areas can be scarce. Electric fences must be kept hot and checked daily.

In the end, Voth explains the research shows goat grazing, while effective as a wildfire deterrent, is hard to implement. In addition, she stresses, while firebreaks are a helpful method to reduce fire risk, they by no means are a prevent-all for wildfires. Instead, she says, goat grazing should be used with a combination of prevention strategies to successfully deter wildfire dangers.

"You can build a firebreak big enough that it will slow the fire enough that if you had the resources there you could actually stop it. But most of the research shows that ultimately the fire will still either go around or jump or whatever," says Voth. "Fire is a little bit like water, it will keep on flowing."

Like fire, when it comes to snuffing out weeds, Voth says, goats are also a useful tool.

"There's research showing that if you have five goats for every cow in a herd, you'll actually have better forage for the cattle because the goats will eat the weeds the cows won't," says Voth.

However, when Voth decided to approach ranchers in the West about grazing goats for pasture weed control, her suggestions were met with skepticism.

"They thought I was crazy and they were right because, as I've explained before, having goats is really hard," says Voth. "The market for their meat is not nearly as developed or easy to find and fencing at the scales ranchers work at would be a horrible issue."

So, Voth went back to the drawing board. She recalled learning about Utah State ruminant behavior expert Fred Provenza's research during her time as BLM's Science Liaison with the university. Provenza's studies showed that when introduced to a new feed, livestock's consumption of the new food increases steadily over time. By the end of seven to eight days, animals reach a point of maximum consumption of the new feed source.

Armed with this information, backed by decades of animal behavior studies, and her own experiences with her goats, Voth conducted her own research and soon developed a method for training cattle to eat weeds.

"It turns out it is really quick and easy," says Voth. "It basically takes an hour a day for about seven to eight days, so you have about seven to eight hours total involved in teaching cows to eat weeds."

"The real beauty of it is that just like people, when cows get education, they become more open-minded about some things," notes Voth. "And so these cows, they're educated that food isn't just one thing. Food can look, smell, and taste different ways. So they actually begin to try a lot of things in the pasture."

Voth explains one herd in particular, which she followed for approximately six years, ate some of nearly every plant present in their pasture, even potentially toxic plants that cattle might regularly avoid. This observation is backed up by Provenza's findings that show, when given the opportunity, animals will mix a diet that suits them if they have an adequate variety of selection.

"It's when we restrict them and limit their variety, that problems can arise," says Voth.

In her experience, Voth says, cattle are every bit as good at brush and weed management as goats and require far less management. While she understands some farmers may still prefer to work with smaller ruminants for weed and brush control needs, cattle are the option she now prefers.

"Once trained, cows can pretty much eat everything a goat can eat," says Voth. "And what they don't eat, they just smash it into the ground."

And for even more valuable grazing and weed management tips, check out,On Pasture.

Authored byJesse Bussard, an agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

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