BEND — Hundreds of goats browse through a field, nibbling and foraging through the available fare. These aren't just any goats, though they are the work force of Lariat Ranch Ecological Services.
The business, based in Powell Butte, owns nearly 400 head of Spanish Boer and San Clemente goats. The goats' job is to pursue their love of eating. Their tastes include noxious weeds found on the High Desert, such as medusahead, hemlock and Russian thistle.
Lariat Ranch is the only prescribed grazing company in Central Oregon. Prescribed grazing is a green way to clear fields without using chemical herbicides. A certain number of goats are placed in a fenced area and eat the noxious weeds that have overtaken the normal ecosystem.
Noxious weeds are non-native, invasive and sometimes toxic plants that easily seed and destroy the natural ecosystem. Nationally, it's estimated that invasive weeds are taking over 4,600 acres of land every day, or 1.5 million acres a year, according to research conducted by the University of Idaho.
"Noxious weeds are up there with global warming and depletion of water," said Rachel Jones, 35, owner of the company. "This is actually a huge deal, but it's on the back burner because people don't understand that we are losing our native habitat."
Lariat Ranch incorporated as a business last year after the Central Oregon Irrigation District approached Jones and her husband, Doug Muck, 44, to experiment with prescribed grazing on a small piece of land next to an irrigation canal.
"I like to experiment with all methods of noxious weed treatment," said Larry Roofener, COID operations manager. "That includes chemical application, mowing and biological methods that I would consider the goat operation to be."
Roofener was satisfied with the results, saying the goats did a great job of eating the noxious weeds.
Lariat Ranch offers services to business and residential customers. Former clients include Bend Municipal Airport, which had the goats clear areas around its hangers, and Dutch Pacific Properties, which had the goats eat weeds around the Sun Ranch Business Park in Sisters.
The goats enter a field and first eat off the seed head of the weeds so the plant thinks it has already reproduced. Next, the goats browse through the field and pick off the leaves of the stem, and finally eat the stems. The root system remains, stabilizing the soil, and the plant reverts to a dormant stage until the following year.
Goats prefer eating weeds rather than native species in Central Oregon, according to Jones. Foliage is often leafier and has a high protein content compared with native plants, such as bunch grass.
Seeds that are consumed by goats and reappear in their feces are 98 percent nonviable, according to Jones. Giant molars in the goats' mouths grind the seeds down, and acid in the stomach destroys the seeds' ability to germinate. Goat excrement also fertilizes the property.
It can take the goats days or weeks to complete a job, depending on the percentage of weeds and property size. Generally speaking, it takes 100 goats one day to eradicate seeds from a one-acre parcel. It takes about a week for the goats to fully eradicate the weeds.
Cost also depends on weed load, size of the property and work involved. Lariat Ranch charges approximately $3 per head for a 24-hour period.
The cost, in the long run, is less than using chemicals, according to Jones. Herbicides don't fix the problem, according to Jones, and must be applied every year, which can cost more in the end.
"It's a whole solution rather than pieces of a solution," she said about how the business operates with clients.
It takes the goats three to five years of annual visits to completely eradicate a noxious weed problem. If clients want a quick fix, the goats come in once, the area is sprayed with an herbicide and then Lariat Ranch replants the land with native species.
Replanting is vital, according to Jones. If the exposed land is not replanted, the noxious weeds will reinhabit the area.
Prescribed grazing with goats can be a successful green alternative to herbicides, depending on the situation, according to Jones and Kim Leval, executive director of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, based in Eugene.
"The goats come in and can clear an area and really keep it controlled," Leval said, citing research the organization has conducted. "They can get to hard-to-get places like hillsides and overgrown, stickery places most people wouldn't want to get to, even if you have a weed eater."
There are various techniques that can be used to destroy noxious weeds, such as herbicides, prescribed grazing and mowing. The best solution depends on the situation at hand.
"To get a handle on the problem, you have to use all the tools in the toolbox, unless you are devoted to it (prescribed grazing)," Jones said. Herbicides and other tools are often needed, unless the goats can continually return to a site until the weed problem is eradicated.
Lariat Ranch's goats are seasonal workers, typically working from early spring to late fall. As browsing animals, they are eager to complete their work and see who can eat the most seed heads after they are initially released into an area.
"They are the perfect employees," Jones said. "You don't have to pay their insurance, workman's comp or give them breaks. You can yell at them and not get in trouble, and what other employees can you sic your dog on?"
Jones and Muck own two Akbash dogs and one Great Pyrenees to protect the herd from various predators.
Goats prefer to eat foliage and weeds instead of grass, unlike cattle. Spanish goats are particularly well adapted to rougher landscapes. About 70 of the goats in Jones' herd are San Clemente goats. This breed was originally brought to North America by the Spanish explorers in the 1400s and placed on San Clemente Island off Southern California, according to Jones, where they were not diluted with domesticated or meat-goat breeds.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Navy began to exterminate the goats, and now they are an endangered species.
"It's like a mustang horse," Jones said of the San Clemente breed. "It's bred to be out there in the wild and foraging and not a pet. It's a weed-eating machine."
Jones' San Clemente herd was rescued two years ago when the government confiscated the goats in Christmas Valley from someone who wasn't caring for them adequately.
"We had to rehab all of these goats, and worm them and inoculate them," Jones said.
The goats are now healthy employees that forage and enjoy their work in the High Desert, contributing to the environment in more ways than they know.
"It's hugely in-depth," Jones said. "There is a whole science behind the animals."