(Beyond Pesticides, October 1, 2012) O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is planning to sign on a shepherd and approximately 30 goats and sheep to graze on overgrown brush at the perimeter of the airport later this fall. The animals are expected to clear about 250 square feet of vegetation per day. Airport officials sought out the goats in order to eliminate an overgrowth of poison ivy and poison oak, and reduce the habitat for wildlife hazardous to airport operations, such as birds or deer. Chicago will join a list of other cities, including Atlanta and San Francisco, that use grazing animals to help maintain portions of their airport and a multitude of other cities that use goats as part of their weed management plans.
The choice to use goats at O’Hare was made because, according to Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride, the overgrown property is difficult for machinery and pesticide applicators to reach because of hills and standing water. The area where the goats will be grazing is outside the security fence, so there’s no danger of goats straying onto the runways. “The animals are a more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly alternative for brush removal,”Ms. Pride said. Five potential vendors already have been identified, and the department hopes the three-week pilot program can get started before the weather gets too cold.
Beyond Pesticides has long been an advocate for the use of goats and grazing animals as a least toxic solution for weed management. Goats are often more efficient at eradicating weeds, and are more environmentally sustainable than using harmful pesticides and chemicals. When goats are used for weed management the first thing they do when they walk through the pasture is snap off all the flower heads. Then they pick the leaves off one at a time, very quickly, leaving a bare stock. Once goats graze a weed, it cannot go to seed because it has no flower and cannot photosynthesize to take in sunlight and build a root system because it has no leaves. Grasses are a last choice for goats, which means the desirable grass species are left behind with natural fertilizer to repopulate the land. Goats are notorious for eating poisonous plants, such as poison ivy and poison oak, and can handle them without getting sick. Goats can also be helpful in recycling Christmas trees. They will strip the whole tree leaving just the trunk, which can be turned into firewood.
Chicago O’Hare is not the only airport using grazing animals to deal with difficult lawn maintenance problems. This year, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport also adopted a pilot project where 100 grazing sheep (plus a few goats) are being used to eat invasive plants such as kudzu. In just two days, a herd ate through nearly half of the waist high weeds in a test acre near the airport. The sheep were hired from Ewe-niversally Green and are part of the “Have Ewe Herd?” program hosted by Trees Atlanta, a nonprofit group dedicated to planting and conserving trees.
Goats have been used for eight summers as part of the weed management program at San Francisco International Airport. Goats are used because the property is an environmentally sensitive area that contains two endangered species, the San Francisco garter snake and the California red-legged frog. The goats are used to eat the vegetation along the property lines on the west side of the airport property and can go into places where the airport cannot use heavy machinery or personnel, similar to the situation in Chicago. The goats used in San Francisco come from Goats R Us, which hires out goats to homeowners, private land managers, and public agencies to graze sites ranging from neighborhood yards to 30,000 acre ranches.
Goats and grazing animals are being used across the United States for a variety of weed management programs from Hempstead, New York to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Even Google hired 200 goats instead of a mowing crew to manage the weeds and brush growing on their corporate campus in Mountain View, California. Google used them in order to reduce fire hazard, according to Dan Hoffman, Google’s Director of Real Estate and Workplace Services. The company’s hiring of the goats costs about the same as mowing.
For more information on natural, non-chemical land management strategies, read “Successfully Controlling Noxious Weeds with Goats: The natural choice that manages weeds and builds soil health” and see Beyond Pesticides’ Lawn and Landscape pages.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.