Cottage Grove

A herd of goats opened a two-week residency at Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park Oct. 24.

Their destination: a hilly 3-acre parcel on the north end of the park, where invasive buckthorn is choking native oaks, aspens and box elders.

Their mission: turn the acreage into their own giant salad bar.

Their visit is part of a pilot program launched by Washington County Parks to clear non-native plants and noxious weeds without using heavy equipment or herbicides.

They hired Goat Dispatch, a vegetation management company in Faribault, Minn., that rents the hooved herbivores to parks, businesses, nonprofits and private residences to eat non-native vegetation. The city of Minnetonka used their services to help clear Purgatory Park.

"Traditionally, a lot of heavy equipment and machinery is used to combat invasive shrubs," said Dan McSwain, natural resources coordinator for the county.

The price is right as well, he said. They'll pay Goat Dispatch $800 per acre for 20 of the four-legged mulchers. If they used human labor and machinery to clear the same spot, the tab would be between $1,000 and $2,200 an acre, he said.

The goats needed no coaxing. One by one, they were released from the truck: On Puppy. On Susie. On Fiona. On Pam and Elky.

No sooner had their hooves hit the ground than they made a beeline into the woods and began browsing among the brush. The air filled with the sounds of cracking branches and crunching jaws.

Some yearlings were among the herd.

"We like to mix the veterans with the new trainees," Goat Dispatch owner Jake Langeslag said.

Goats are particularly suited to clearing garlic mustard, crown vetch and other noxious weeds. Acids in their stomach destroy seeds that might otherwise be cycled back into the soil. They're also expert climbers who can navigate hilly terrain.

"Sites that you can't mow with machinery that are unsafe for humans to be using chainsaws and such, they excel in that kind of environment," Langeslag said.

Goats work together to bring down tall branches. One goat will bend a branch to the ground while others pile on and strip it clean, he said.

Langeslag and his wife, Amanda, keep 150 goats on their farm. He started his business 4-1/2 years ago.

"I just was working on my own land and was tired of the different methods," he said. "I knew there had to be a better way."

The goats will be be penned in by a temporary electrical fence. Another non-electrical fence on the outside will act as a buffer for humans and dogs.

"It's slightly electrified solar fence," Langeslag said. "It's just enough to keep the goats in without people having to worry about it."

Rounding up the goats at the end of the two weeks won't be a problem, he said. His border collie Tag will see to that.

As the brush is consumed the goats will become more visible, Swain said. People are welcome to come watch. Those with dogs should observe existing leash laws, he said.

Some hungry goats aren't going to years of neglect, he said. Some of the buckthorn in the 506-acre park is more than a half-century old. He said they'll consider bringing more goats if the big feed is a success.

"It's not a silver bullet," he said. "A one-time goat graze isn't going to stop the buckthorn issue. It requires long-term management."