Area goats combatting salt cedar

LOGAN – About 1,000 goats have been feasting on salt cedar along Ute Creek for the past five months.
Like a swarm of locusts, they devour up to 10 acres of invasive trees everyday. “They’re ravenous eaters,” said Kelly Boney, a rancher and goat herder from San Jon. “We expect them to raze about 2,500 acres of salt cedar before the end of the year.”

The goats are helping restore the watershed as part of a five-year state-funded project to control salt cedar along Ute Creek. But their cast-iron stomachs are also carving out a niche market for Boney, who earned $50,000 per year in 2003 and 2004 to manage the goats. Like Boney, goat herders across the state are hoping to win grazing contracts as interest grows in biological control of salt cedar, a water-guzzling invasive species that has infested watersheds throughout New Mexico and the Southwest.
“Goats aren’t the solution to invasive plants and noxious weeds, but they’re a great tool – probably the most efficient biological tool we have,” said Manny Encinias, a livestock specialist with New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service. “As these kinds of grazing projects spread, we think there are tremendous opportunities for New Mexico goat producers. It’s a win-win situation.”

Extension is a partner with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District on a pilot goat grazing project in the bosque in Albuquerque. The three-year project, financed with part of a $100,000 grant from the state legislature, began Sept. 15 with 400 goats. It will allow researchers to measure the impact of goat grazing on salt cedar and other nonnative vegetation, while offering goat herders on-the-ground training to bid on future contracts. “We want local producers to make a business out of this,” said Sterling Grogan, conservancy district biologist. “There’s a need for biological control of invasive species, so we think there’s a market for goat vegetation management. We expect the bosque project will show that.”

Given the success with goats in other states, Grogan believes the pilot project will work in New Mexico. “They’re very effective at killing small salt cedars and damaging larger ones,” Grogan said. “The goats don’t just eat the leaves, they strip the bark, break the branches and bust up the plants.” Goats alone won’t eradicate salt cedar, but combined with mechanical treatments and sometimes chemical spraying, they can help control invasive species over time. Moreover, the pounding of goat hoofs helps restore native grasses and other vegetation. “They churn up the soil and stomp native seed back down,” Grogan said. “That creates an excellent seedbed for native grass.”
“It’s not just a matter of turning out a bunch of goats,”

Holguin said. “Herders need to learn how to manage them to graze only on nonnative species.” To avoid labor costs, Boney camps out with her goats. Even so, she’s spent most of her contract earnings on capital investments, including about $40,000 on goats and work dogs, $11,000 on equipment and vehicles and about $4,000 per year on insurance. But she expects to earn substantial returns in 2005. “It’s not a get-rich-quick thing, but our net worth has grown substantially, and we’ve returned a small profit to the ranch,” Boney said. “Next year, we’ll be managing the goats without loan support, and we’ll be debt-free by July 2005. That’s something every businessperson strives to accomplish.”