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The Iowa City community turns to alternatives for herbicides to combat environmental damage.
February 28, 2018
Standing on top of the Linn County landfill, 250 workers are busy clearing their way through invasive weeds and plants this fall. However, these aren’t your typical laborers, lugging heavy shears and saws—they don’t need special equipment to get the job done. All these workers need are their mouths.
A new trend, targeted grazing, appearing across the country over the last few years, has come to the Iowa City Community School District. Targeted grazing is controlled goat grazing that clears unwanted vegetation with little damage to the terrain and wanted plants. Goats are replacing harmful weed killers such as herbicides and carbon dioxide-producing machinery, which emits fossil fuels and contributes to the increasingly apparent climate change crisis.
Goats on the Go, founded in 2012, is one of the companies in Iowa that brings their goats to different locations to eat unwanted vegetation. From landfills to residential homes to schools, these goats have been almost everywhere, coming typically three times to each location.
The goats first come in the spring after the plants grow leaves and return eight weeks later after the leaves regrow. The final visit occurs a year later in the spring, when they eat the plants one last time. This process is believed to get about 90% of the weeds killed, according to Chad Steenhoek, co-founder of Goats on the Go.
While it doesn’t work as quickly as chemicals do, it gives back to the land in a way typical weed killers can’t.
“We’re taking land that doesn’t have any value and we’re creating food from that land, [whereas] if you just use chemicals, you get no benefits from the land,” said Steenhoek. Because the goats are domestic, they can be safely used as meat after a satisfying life of munching on leaves and weeds.
The district first heard about this trend in an advertisement on the radio. Leading up to the introduction of goats to the schools, they made sure to make the community aware through newspapers and press releases from the administrative office.
“So many people are so detached from farm life and natural wildlife that we weren’t sure if it was going to upset a lot of people,” ICCSD grounds manager Ben Grimm explained.
The first goats came in 2016 to repair revines and the effects of erosion and convert land into areas that people can use. That spring, the schools to receive them were Penn and Shimek Elementary Schools. In just three days, Penn’s once inaccessible land was ready to be converted into a grassy park.
“They totally managed all the goats, so that all the kids, both human and four-legged, were safe,” said Kristy Heffner, Principal of Penn Elementary. “The only concern we had to address was people wondering if it would hurt the goats to eat poison ivy and wild mustard. We learned from the owners that the goats are very able to handle this invasive sort of plant with no ill effects.”
After those first successful visits, Theodore Roosevelt Education Center, Lincoln Elementary and City High were next on the list for the spring of 2017, chosen because of the severity of their situations.
And while West High isn’t on the list as of right now, there has been talk of them coming to clear the areas around the practice fields in a few years.
This year at the education center, the groundskeepers got multiple calls from the school’s neighbors claiming the fence was down and the goats were on the loose, only for them to show up and find everything in place. Despite how these reports may have seemed like ways of getting rid of the goats, Grimm thinks they “weren’t out of ill intent,” but just showed that “they didn’t know exactly what they were looking at” because of how uncomfortable people are with wildlife and nature.
Eventually, the project’s original skeptics were convinced that it wasn’t all negative. Integrated Pest Management, a program in the district that tries to find alternative methods to avoid using pesticides, is one reason for this, “[trumping] anybody who was saying anything negative about the goats,” according to Grimm.
Not only are these versatile mammals better for the environment, they also can be much safer than a human going in these areas. Goats can access areas that people can’t without risk to themselves because of their light feet and size. The poisonous plants that could be deadly to humans are things the goats enjoy eating. For the school projects, they used the goats to eat down the vegetation so the workers can chainsaw down the unwanted plants.
“We could’ve gone in. We could’ve gotten a tractor. We could’ve bulldozed. We could’ve chewed it up with a brush mower, but we would have also been exposing our employees to . . . plants that could put us in the hospital,” Grimm explained, describing the situation at Penn Elementary.
The goats are typically only at a location for around five days, eating the undesired plants quickly. They are enclosed with an electric fence, shaped into paddocks, which divide the area into a grid. The goats are kept in a specific area by the electric fence until everything is eaten, at which point one side of the paddock is opened for them to move to the next section.
There is no need to worry about problems with the goats either; “no matter if it’s a large job or a small job, they are checked on daily,” Steenhoek said. This is done to make sure the goats are healthy, and that the customer is getting what they want out of them.
With job sizes ranging from around 40 to 250 goats, the district’s project fell on the very small side of the spectrum at between 20-30 goats at each location.
However, even this ‘small’ number of goats can be overwhelming for young children at the elementary schools, especially when mixed with a running circuit of electricity. To protect the children, a seven to eight foot tall perimeter fence is put up outside of the electric fence. In addition, a tame goat is brought from site to site for the kids.
“It was weird because the [tame] goat would just follow you around like a dog. If it couldn’t find you, it’d start jumping up and down trying to look over the weeds trying to find you,” Grimm recollected with a laugh.
The district is still very selective about which schools receive goats, due to both cost and grazing season. In Iowa, grazing season is only 150 days, starting in late May. When comparing the costs of goats to the other methods that would be used, they are surprisingly similar, especially when working with steep hills. Even if the land is flat, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
“If it means that we’re keeping toxins away from the students and kids . . . that’s a win situation for everybody,” Grimm said.
Two years after this project first took shape, five schools have had goats and many children’s’ lives have been steered away from being exposed to dangerous chemicals, which can lead to many serious diseases and defects.
ICCSD has had the initiative in taking steps towards more environmental sustainability, causing the city and University of Iowa to follow in its path. “We’ve really just showed that it was viable. If you could do it at an elementary school, you can pretty much do it anywhere,” Grimm said.