Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
LOGAN - About 1,000 goats have been feasting on salt cedar along Ute Creek in Harding County for the past five months.
Like a swarm of locusts, they devour up to 10 acres of invasive trees everyday.
"They're ravenous eaters," said Kelly Boney, a rancher and goat herder from San Jon. "We expect them to raze about 2,500 acres of salt cedar before the end of the year."
The goats are helping restore the watershed as part of a five-year state-funded project to control salt cedar along Ute Creek. But their cast-iron stomachs are also carving out a niche market for Boney, who earned $50,000 per year in 2003 and 2004 to manage the goats.
Like Boney, goat herders across the state are hoping to win grazing contracts as interest grows in biological control of salt cedar, a water-guzzling invasive species that has infested watersheds throughout New Mexico and the Southwest.
"Goats aren't the solution to invasive plants and noxious weeds, but they're a great tool–-probably the most efficient biological tool we have," said Manny Encinias, a livestock specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "As these kinds of grazing projects spread, we think there are tremendous opportunities for New Mexico goat producers. It's a win-win situation."
Extension is a partner with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District on a pilot goat grazing project in the bosque in Albuquerque. The three-year project, financed with part of a $100,000 grant from the state legislature, began Sept. 15 with 400 goats. It will allow researchers to measure the impact of goat grazing on salt cedar and other nonnative vegetation, while offering goat herders on-the-ground training to bid on future contracts.
"We want local producers to make a business out of this," said Sterling Grogan, conservancy district biologist. "There's a need for biological control of invasive species, so we think there's a market for goat vegetation management. We expect the bosque project will show that."
Given the success with goats in other states, Grogan believes the pilot project will work in New Mexico.
"They're very effective at killing small salt cedars and damaging larger ones," Grogan said. "The goats don't just eat the leaves, they strip the bark, break the branches and bust up the plants."
Goats alone won't eradicate salt cedar, but combined with mechanical treatments and sometimes chemical spraying, they can help control invasive species over time. Moreover, the pounding of goat hoofs helps restore native grasses and other vegetation.
"They churn up the soil and stomp native seed back down," Grogan said. "That creates an excellent seedbed for native grass."
Extension and the conservancy district expect more state and federal money will flow if the bosque project is successful.
"There's a lot of bosque that needs treating, and there are a lot of noxious weed problems around the state," said Frank Holguin, agricultural agent with the Valencia County Extension office. "If this works, we'll need a lot more goats, probably thousands of them, and that means opportunities for goat herders."
Encinias and Holguin will conduct a training workshop in early October for producers at the bosque site–-about 100 acres around La Orilla, an area south of Paseo del Norte and west of the river.
"It's not just a matter of turning out a bunch of goats," Holguin said. "Herders need to learn how to manage them to graze only on nonnative species."
The workshop will teach weed identification, using fencing and dogs to herd and protect goats, and preparing of competitive bids for contracts.
Encinias said about 20 producers have expressed interest in the business, and six producers bid on the bosque project.
Phyllis Myers, co-owner of Cattlemens Livestock Auction Co. Inc. in Belen, won the contract, worth $39,000 for 45 days of grazing.
Myers partnered with Sarah Harris, an experienced land management herder from Oregon. That's something the conservancy district recommended because few New Mexico producers have vegetation management experience, Myers said.
"I've been looking for an opportunity like this, but it's a specialized field with a lot of competition from out-of-state professionals," she said. "By partnering with Sarah, I can glean from her the experience she's accumulated. That will make it easier to win contracts on my own in the future."
Harris is a full-time grazer who grosses about $175,000 per year from contracts in other states. "I'll net about $48,000 this year, but it takes a long time to build the experience and reputation necessary to win these contracts," said Harris. "Phyllis won't make much money this first time, but she'll get a lot of knowhow under her belt."
In fact, Myers expects no net profit this year. Twenty percent of earnings will go to Harris, and nearly all the rest will be invested in equipment and labor costs, such as $16,000 for an around-the-clock herder with part-time helpers and more than $10,000 on fencing, transport vehicles and other equipment.
But Myers will have gained the equipment needed for future projects. "Hopefully, I'll make a decent profit next time," she said.
Boney has had a similar experience out on Ute Creek. To avoid labor costs, she camps out with her goats. Even so, she's spent most of her contract earnings on capital investments, including about $40,000 on goats and work dogs, $11,000 on equipment and vehicles and about $4,000 per year on insurance.
But she expects to earn substantial returns in 2005. "It's not a get-rich-quick thing, but our net worth has grown substantially, and we've returned a small profit to the ranch," Boney said. "Next year, we'll be managing the goats without loan support, and we'll be debt-free by July 2005. That's something every businessperson strives to accomplish."
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