Alamosa reduces weeds and the threat of wildland fires with goats

Courier Photo by John Waters Ben Nicholson and his goats at the Malm Trailhead in Alamosa. Nicholson and his Bovidae herd are busy providing biological control for the City of Alamosa, Parks and Recreation. The goats are eating noxious plants.

ALAMOSA — In January of last year, this reporter encountered Ben Nicholson and his goats at the Malm Trailhead in Alamosa. The goats were busy eating grasses and other plants, which is why Nicholson, and the goats were hired to do. Eat. Just the goats, not Nicholson.

On a recent hike on the trail network, I again met Nicholson and his tribe of goats, and this is an update on what they are all doing.

Regarding the goat project Sean Sluyter, Outdoor Recreation Supervisor and Grants Coordinator with Alamosa Parks and Recreation had this, "In 2022, the City was awarded a Disaster Supplemental Funding Grant for Colorado Invasive Species Plant Management from the USDA Forest Service and the Colorado Department of Agriculture. This grant has allowed the City to continue its integrated approach to noxious weed management through forward-thinking control methods. Several years back, the Department first introduced biological control methods to its noxious weed management plan to combat the spread of Bindii (Tribulus terrestris), locally known as Puncturevine, through the use of Puncturevine Stem Weevils (Microlarinus lypriformis)."

Recently, Nicholson and 17 goats have again been busy at work at the Malm Trail network. The goats are kept in a 40-foot by 40-foot wire fence enclosure, equal to about 1,600 square feet (about half the area of a tennis court), where they are free to eat as much vegetation as they like. The (adorable) goats can consume about 1,200 square feet of vegetation in a good day, says Nicholson. After the ruminants devour the plants in the enclosure, Nicholson moves it and the goats to another nearby location.

The area where the goats are currently grazing is what firefighters call the "wildland urban interface," the confluence of open land and areas that contain the trappings of human development such as houses. Using prescribed fires in such areas can be risky and sometimes have catastrophic results. In 2022, such a burn in New Mexico accidentally started a 300,000-acre fire that destroyed 1,500 structures including homes.

The goats pose no fire risks, they also alleviate the need to use chemical herbicides.

Goats will eat the weeds, aerate the soil with their hooves, and add manure to the soil. The City will have employees follow behind the goats and lay down native grass seed mix to encourage growth of healthy vegetation to hopefully choke out the regrowth of weeds. This is all a part of an integrated noxious weed management strategy.

"In January 2023, the Department partnered with White Shell Mountain Ranch to establish goat grazing within the Toivo Malm Trail System. This innovative mechanical control method aims to improve the presence and resiliency of native grasses while also creating fire breaks to mitigate against potential wildfires. In 2023, the goats grazed approximately 76,800 square feet, with approximately 43,560 square feet reseeded with a native grass seed mix,” according to Sluyter. Aside from utilizing their goats as grazers, Ben's wife Amity Nicholson uses goat milk to make soap. With her recipe, she blends oils, lye, and goat milk into her proprietary product that she sells at her store in Alamosa.

For those interested in learning more, Colorado State University has an informative publication regarding goats and plant/fire management on its website Guide for Using Goats to Manage Weeds in Urban Spaces that can be found here: https://sam.extension.colostate.edu.


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