Invasive plants can turn a grassy habitat for turkeys and quail into an overgrown thicket, so officials with the Mark Twain National Forest have turned to a decidedly low-tech way to manage them — goats.
ELK CREEK — Invasive plants can turn a grassy habitat for turkeys and quail into an overgrown thicket, so officials with the Mark Twain National Forest have turned to a decidedly low-tech way to manage them — goats.
Brian Davidson, who manages the botany and invasive species program at the forest, told KCUR that plants such as blackberries and kudzu compete for nutrients with grassy habitat. "And then they push out and eliminate a lot of the desirable native species that we have," Davidson said.
But removing the invasive plants can be expensive and even harmful to the environment in the forest, which covers three million acres across southern Missouri.
Loren and Elizabeth Steele of Elk Creek own up to 1,500 Spanish goats that they take to landowners looking for a natural way to eradicate unwanted vegetation. Now, they're working with the forest, at a cost to the government of $25,000.
The Steeles set up a portable, solar-powered electric fence around a designated area. The goats roam and graze within that area. The couple have been in the goat business since 2017.
Despite their reputation, goats are actually picky eaters, Loren Steele said. However, they will eat many plants that other grazing animals ignore, and they don't eat a lot of grass.
In just a day or two, goats can eat their way through a few acres of overgrown fields. As an added benefit, their waste "gets incorporated into the soil, and it's a positive," Davidson said. "What goes in comes out, right? And all of that has a lot of nutrients."
Forest officials are considering seeing what the goats can do not just in open fields, but among the trees.
"We have a lot of native hardwoods that are encroaching and impeding pine regeneration and also not maintaining the openness," said Davidson. "So we'll try using goats in there to try and maintain that structure."
Loren Steele said the goats seem to enjoy their work.
"They get shipped to a new place on a regular basis. It's kind of like having a new smorgasbord on a regular basis, so yeah, I think it's pretty good," Steele said.