Coeur d’Alene to unleash goats on weedy well sites

FRIDAY, AUG. 10, 2012, 3:38 P.M.

Goats from Green Goat Rentals munch on hay at the farm near Hayden Lake in 2012. The city of Coeur d'Alene uses the goats for weed control at city well sites. (Kathy Plonka)
Goats from Green Goat Rentals munch on hay at the farm near Hayden Lake in 2012. The city of Coeur d'Alene uses the goats for weed control at city well sites. (Kathy Plonka)

Coeur d’Alene got its goats, and the city isn’t the least bit annoyed by it.

City water officials long have wanted to use goats to mow down weeds at municipal well sites, but a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule prohibits livestock at such sources of drinking water.

The city’s water department said today it was able to convince state regulators that goats don’t pose the same health threat as cows, whose manure can contaminate groundwater with the E. coli bacteria.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has granted the city a waiver to use goats for weed control at any of its nine well sites.

The city will begin this weekend with a tribe of 20 to 25 pygmy goats inside a fenced well near the traffic circle at Kathleen Avenue and Fourth Street, south of Coeur d’Alene High School.

It’s an inexpensive solution to weed control where herbicides are not an option, Coeur d’Alene Water Superintendent Jim Markley said.

“This is elegant, simple and green,” Markley said. “Put a bunch of goats in there and three days later the weeds are gone.”

The goats eat a wide variety of weeds and plants, including blackberry bushes, bramble, English ivy, nettles, poison oak, poison sumac and more than 120 other species. They’ll even chomp away at marijuana – in moderation.

“Goats basically eat 25 percent of their weight a day,” said Suzanne Forte, owner of Green Goat Rental, the Hayden Lake farm that’s supplying the city.

A tribe of 30 can thoroughly graze an acre in five or six days, Forte said.

She originally got goats to combat knapweed in her horse pasture without having to resort to herbicides.

Forte has a herd of about 40 now – mostly pygmy goats and some pygmy crosses and floppy-eared Nubian goats.

She rents them out to property owners with overgrown yards or steep terrain, farms with weed-infested pastures, and homeowner associations that maintain common areas. Some jobs have focused on knocking down vegetation to reduce fire risk, and others to protect native plants from invasive weeds around wetlands.

“And once in a while I have someone who just wants to rent a little goat for their kids to play with for a day,” Forte said.

She charges $2.25 per goat per day, plus labor costs for set-up. The goats also get fresh water each day, salt and baking soda to prevent bloat from overeating.

The city has used goats to control vegetation near its reservoirs, but when officials wanted to do the same at well sites they ran into the EPA livestock ban. The state classifies goats as livestock, but the EPA rule really is aimed at cattle.

The danger was illustrated in May 2000 in the small Canadian town of Walkerton, Ontario. Cow manure from a farm near a city well contaminated the water supply with E. coli O157:H7. Seven people died and more than 2,300 became ill.

“It’s a hot issue for water quality,” Markley said.

But goat poop is different, he said. Cows deposit wet piles of waste – cow pies – while goats leave small pellets that dry quickly.

The consensus, Markley said, is that goats do not pose a water quality threat. And to prove it, the city agreed to conduct a study designed by an intern, Ryan Barton, who has a background in grazing studies, in consultation with the DEQ.

Barton will measure the quantity and potency of goat droppings as well as bacteria levels at and just below the surface.

The city has additional layers of protection for its water supplies, Markley said. The water is deep underground, the wells are sealed and housed inside buildings, and the goats will be on the ground for just a few days a year.

The public is welcome to stop by and watch the animals at work, he said.

“They’re happy, they’re in there eating,” Markley said. “Everybody loves goats.”

Tags: Goats

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