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Ag researcher unleashes secret weapon - goats

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Posted: Friday, July 5, 2002 10:00 pm

A little-known government center on the outskirts of Lockeford is conducting experiments on a new secret weapon in California's agricultural arsenal - goats.

Researchers at a plant materials center funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are using common goats to clear large areas of unwanted foliage. From thistles to thorns, from puncture weed to poison oak, nearly anything that stands still long enough to be eaten is on the menu for these gluttonous goats.

A Boer doe nibbles on leaves on bramble vines and trees. (Jennifer Matthews-Howell/News-Sentinel)

The idea to study the eating habits of goats was hatched by agronomist Tish Espinosa, who has been a plant research specialist at the center for 10 years.

Espinosa, in essence, is looking for the most voracious goats - the biggest, most ravenous eaters. By isolating the piggiest goats, she hopes to help farmers make use of goats as four-legged machines to munch invasive plant growth away from their crops.

Espinosa was astonished by the animals' ability to eat blackberry bushes with razor-sharp thorns and thought that there might be a place for their appetite in the increasingly efficient world of agriculture.

With only one year of research behind her, Espinosa is already beginning to see results. The animals were able to devour a patch of thorn-ridden blackberry bushes that had taken control of a large portion of the center's riverfront property.

Like floppy-eared lawnmowers, a small herd of goats can clear a mile-long levee filled with dense foliage in about a month.

"They don't seem to mind it," she said. "In fact, they love it."

The herd actually belongs to Gayla Roberts, who raises several breeds of goat on a nearby ranch.

Roberts said the reason the goats eat such a bizarre variety of food and so much of it is because the plants they like to eat generally have a low nutritional value. Goats must eat a wide range of plants to gain the necessary nutrients to survive.

But becoming a super eater takes strategy. Animals that know which foods to eat don't need to be fed by their owners and thus spend more time eating the unwanted foliage.

Espinosa constantly checks the weight and health of the goats to measure their eating ability. Once an animal begins to lose weight, it is removed.

Not every goat is cut out for such a prickly pursuit.

Espinosa started with a herd of about 130 animals, but over months of observation, she has systematically weeded out animals that can't stomach such a rigorous meal. Through selective breeding, Espinosa plans to create a race of super goats that will be available to farmers. She is now left with 75 of the heartiest animals.

"They're like people. Some like the easy life and some can handle a little more," she said.

Espinosa is confident about the environmental benefits of the animals as well.

The goats make it possible for farmers to eradicate unwanted bushes and shrubs without the use of chemical herbicides. In addition, goats prefer to eat leafy bushes and shrubs and leave beneficial grasses relatively unharmed.

She said goat hooves lightly disturb the soil, allowing beneficial plants to grow. And the goats' droppings help to fertilize the ground.

Goat digestion is so complete, she said, that no species of seed is resilient enough to pass through the animal's four chambered stomach and survive to take root.

"We're trying to show how agriculture and nature can coexist, and even complement each other," she said.

Currently, the center has only enough funding to contract out the goats from Roberts.

She said that goats have a variety of uses beside their role as eating machines. Roberts raises different breeds for wool, milk and meat as well as the super eater variety.

The secret, Roberts said, to a goat's remarkable ability to eat the inedible is their hard palate. This tough bony ridge on the animals' upper jaw allows them to chew almost anything.

Despite their utility, goats can be tricky to work with. They routinely kick and butt each other with their horns and maintain a strict social hierarchy.

"They all know immediately where they stand in the group, and if they step out of line - bam!" Roberts said.

To keep the animals eating in a specific area, Roberts and Espinosa use a portable electrified fence hooked up to a car battery. Espinosa said that the goats are not hurt by the fence, merely persuaded to stay where they belong.

The plant materials center encompasses over 106 acres of prime farmland along the Mokelumne River.

Since 1972, a USDA supported facility has been conducting experiments in an array of ag related fields. The center's main duties involve collecting promising plants and testing their performance under a variety of soil, climatic and use conditions.

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