Leafy spurge is no match for Noya’s goats
June 29, 2018
Carolina Noya lives a simple, yet peaceful life. The Wyoming goat herder spends six months of the year out on the Wyoming prairie in a sheep wagon, with a herd of goats, several guard dogs and Mother Nature for company. Noya runs her business, Devils Tower Goats, herding goats through pastures, while keeping a watchful eye on them as they gobble up leafy spurge and other noxious weeds.
It's a way of life she enjoys. "I took a job as a goat herder 10 years ago," Noya said. "I was a herder for one year, and then the owner of the herd wanted to sell. I ended up with over 1,000 goats. Everyone always tells you to start small, and I agree with that. When someone asks me about having so many goats, I tell them to start small, but think big. My advice is if you want 200, start with 20. It doesn't take long to build up a herd, and it gives you an opportunity to see if this is something you really want to do long term, because you won't get a return on your money right away. I've been at it 10 years now, and I still learn something new from them everyday," she said.
The goats make a diet of the leafy spurge that plagues Crook County. "Crook County is the capital of leafy spurge," Noya said. "But the goats love it, and are totally addicted to it. Over 90 percent of their diet is leafy spurge, and the other 10 percent is sage, pine trees, oak trees and any underbrush they can reach. Basically, they utilize a plant like leafy spurge, that is useless for grazing most animals, and produce delicious meat from it. Leafy spurge is about 18 percent protein, so it is a healthy diet for goats."
They will only consume grass if they are forced to, Noya said. "They really prefer broadleaf plants. They will also eat plants like thistle and Hounds Tongue. It is not something you can train them to do, it is something in their system that makes them really like it."
Noya shared a story from a few years ago when she took in 800 kid goats during the spring. "They came from Texas when there was a drought, and they had never eaten anything green. We put them out on pasture, and within an hour or two, they had learned what spurge was, and liked it. You don't have to teach goats to eat it, they will go for it on their own. When they are out of spurge, they will start looking for a hole in the fence and follow it to the neighbors," she said.
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Although the goats can eventually eat themselves out of job, there will still be seeds in the ground so the plant is still there, Noya said. "We usually try to graze each area of spurge three times, in the spring, fall, and again the next spring. The goats can keep it under control giving other grasses a chance to compete with it. If the native grasses can come up, the spurge will not take over. Controlling spurge is not a quick fix. Grazing at different times than when you usually would can prevent it from going to seed, and allow other grasses a chance to absorb the moisture to grow."
During the winter, the goats are still on the job clearing up underbrush, pine trees and junipers. "They really like it," Noya said. "The trees have tannin in it, which is a natural dewormer. We like to see them clear it as high as they can reach, so if we ever have a fire, it won't burn as hot. The goats can thin an area out without hurting the trees. It allows more grass to grow since daylight can get in."
Noya sees the goats as providing a service to improving the land. "They aerate the soil with their feet, and they add organic fertilizer to the soil," she said. "They can also graze in areas that a sprayer can not get to. Overall, they add life to the soil, rather than spraying, which can kill the bugs and microorganisms living in the soil. They can also eat under the trees, where you can't spray."
Noya has found ranchers in the area receptive to grazing their leafy spurge with goats because it is a good option. "Spraying is costly, and you can't spray under trees or close to water, so there is still no guarantee it will get rid of all the weeds," she said. "I have been grateful to the ranchers who open up their gates and pastures, and are willing to give the goats a try. I'm not afraid to promote a goat."
The key to grazing goats is management. "I try to overgraze the weeds, but not the grass," she said. "If we can get the weeds under control, the ranchers can run more cows because they have more grass. When I go to someone's ranch, I am with these goats day and night. I herd them all day, and bed them down at night. If it is possible, I use electric fence to bed them down at night to make it a little easier for the guard dogs to keep predators out."
Without the guard dogs, grazing goats wouldn't be possible. "The biggest challenge is the predators," Noya said. "The dogs have to fight off mountain lions that sometimes trail the goats for weeks. It is hard on the dogs, but it is hard on the herder, too. The dogs look at the goats as their responsibility, and they will do everything they can to protect them."
As long as the herd stays together, Noya said it is much easier to protect the herd. "When a goat lags behind or wanders off, they are more likely to be attacked," she said. "It is very hard when the mountain lion attacks one dog. They don't stand a chance."
The goats also love to travel and climb. "If there is a big patch of spurge, they will graze for an hour or two, then bed down for awhile," she said. "They walk as they eat taking a bite or two off a leaf, so I just circle them back. They need the exercise, and it's how they like to graze."
To learn more about Devil's Tower Goats, Noya can be found on facebook by searching for Carolina Noya. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.