Goats munch on invasive species in Ottawa parks

Caleb Whitmer
Holland Sentinel

Holland — There is a sign just off the trail at Eastmanville Bayou. It reads: “Warning: Goats at work.”

As part of its effort to control invasive species in its parks, Ottawa County has employed the quirky creatures to conduct “prescribed browsing” in local public spaces over the past few years. Containing the animals within paddocks they want grazed, county staff let the goats roam for weeks at a time as they all but clear these designated areas of the nonnative vegetation.

“They have amazing temperaments,” Melanie Manion, natural resources management supervisor at Ottawa County Parks and Recreation, said. “We just have got six awesome goats.”

Ottawa County’s history of goat herding goes back several years when Manion was looking for a solution to an invasive species called oriental bittersweet growing on several of the county’s properties.

The woody vine grows aggressively, choking out the native population. It is known to grow so heavy as to topple mature trees.

“In some places it was growing 6 feet deep,” Manion said. “That’s not an exaggeration.”

County staff tried herbicides to little avail. So Manion took her questions to a national conference, where a woman from Wisconsin presented on the benefits of putting goats on invasive-species patrol. About 80 percent of a goat’s natural diet are woody plants, Manion said, making the mammal an ideal adversary for the oriental bittersweet.

She brought the idea back to the county. Phil Kuyers, county commissioner, donated a small herd of goats for the first year and the “eco goat” program was underway.

It works like this:

County staff scope out the park to make sure it is right for a browse. The goats won’t be too discriminatory as to what greenery they eat.

“We aren’t going to put them in an area that is only 25 percent invasive species,” Manion said.

Staff and volunteers then put down an electric fence around the invasive species plots. The goats are then released and allowed to graze at their leisure — possibly for weeks on end.

Goats have tough digestive systems and are even able to consume poison ivy without irritation. Their general health is a concern, however, and the county keeps an intern to check up on them.

The past two summers, Manion said, have proved challenging, specifically in regards to the goats’ health. The program has mixed different breeds of goats from different herds and unknown farmers the past two years, leading to communicated sickness and less effective invasive species treatment.

But now, Manion said, she thinks they have finally got the program down.

“This is the third and final year,” Manion said, “and, oh my gosh, I feel like we got it right.”

Six goats, all from the same owner, are currently grazing at Eastmanville Bayou. As of June 1, the fenced in area was set up between a walking trail and the Grand River about a quarter mile up river from the parking lot.

Outside of staff time, donations have paid for all the program’s costs. For the past two years, the Grand Haven Community Foundation alone has funded the summer intern position.

Another key player in the county’s goat program has been the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District’s Careerline Tech Center. With the county’s grant money, students from the program purchased the goats, did basic training with them and conducted wellness checks. The summer interns of 2015 and 2016 have both come from the program.

Katie Hill, an instructor with CTC, said a big draw for the collaboration between the county and the school is the goat program’s mixture of environmental and agricultural applied science.

“Not only will they be helping the environment,” Hill said, “but it was also to be a sustainable project that will provide a protein meat source.”

Once the goats finish their summer feeding for the county, they are processed and sold for food.

Often, Hill said, agricultural and environmental concerns are considered as two different entities at best or pitted against one another at worst. But the goat program has provided an obvious example for how the two work off of one another.

“It’s been a really cool thing to have both of those things together,” Hill said.

The program has had some success, Manion said, although just how successful is still unclear. Last year’s illness among the goats allowed only one park property to be grazed. The original plan was to have the goats graze three separate properties three times over three years.

Land the goats have grazed, however, has shown a marked improvement, Manion said, and native species have sprung up where they were previously rare.

Whether the program will continue after this year, though, remains to be seen. The hope, Manion said, is for a local to take up the goats-as-weed-eaters business as a private business venture based on the county’s model.

Because of the hiccup of the 2015 grazing program, however, Manion said she and other parks staff will discuss whether to continue their own program for one more year.

“We are crunching the numbers,” Manion said.