Invasive plants like buckthorn and garlic mustard were brought to Minnesota from Europe for landscaping in the 1800s, but quickly outwore their welcome. Chances are, if you’ve been on a walk in the woods, you’ve seen the large tree-like buckthorn shrubs with thorns and blackberries dominating the landscape. Garlic mustard, an edible plant that smells and tastes like garlic, covers the forest floor, preventing native plants and wildflowers from taking root.
Now there’s an unlikely hero fighting back to help restore balance to the Southern Minnesota ecosystem: goats.
Six years ago, Jake Langeslag, an ecology graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, spent nearly all of his free time in the woods by his rural Rice County home pulling invasive plants like garlic mustard and buckthorn from the ground, only to discover they would come back with a vengeance, but he didn’t want to use herbicides. That’s when a friend with a few goats suggested he borrow them and see if they could push back against the plants.
It worked, so he acquired his own goats. Then a neighbor asked to borrow them. In 2015, Riverbend Nature Center in Faribault decided to give it a try. Last year, his herd expanded to over 400 goats; with new kids born this year, the herd is pushing 500. His goats have travelled throughout Southern Minnesota with the goal of combating invasive plant species, visiting state parks, wildlife refuges, college campuses, parks and land managed by the Minnesota Department of Nature Resources.
This summer marks the fourth consecutive season the goats will be a fixture at the Carleton College campus and arboretum in Northfield. Carleton College Grounds Manager Jay Stadler had heard that Langeslag had successfully used goats at other locations to push back against invasives. Their thick skin, and tough mouth and tongue allow them to walk through and munch away thorny vines and leaves. They even eat thistles without batting an eye.
“Last year we had 55 goats on campus,” Stadler said. “We take them in the third week of June and will keep them until the students come back in September.”
The goats come and go for short stints ranging from a couple days on private land, all the way up to months at a time for larger areas. Langeslag runs the business, Goat Dispatch, with his wife Amanda on a farm a couple miles south of Faribault. This spring they spent some time at Flandrau State Park near New Ulm, and some will be going up to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. They rotate from one section of land until they’d consumed leaves and bark from invasive plants, surrounded by makeshift electric fencing. When they finish one area, Langeslag and his crew move the fencing so they can graze a new section.
“People really enjoy coming out to parks and watching the animals working on the buckthorn; it’s quite a draw,” said Langeslag. “They do really well on vines, prickly gooseberry, raspberry, sumac, a lot of the plants and trees that grow really quick and fast and are hard to keep on top of. They really love those. The brush is where the goats really excel.”
What began as a part-time side job on the weekends has blossomed into a full-fledged business. During peak season in the summer, Langeslag has three to four full time employees, along with a dozen people who check in on the goats at each location.
“We find a lot of our customers miss the goats so much after they leave that they’ll come and work for us,” Langeslag said.
Where and when they are placed in a specific area depends on what kinds of plants they are targeting, and what plants the customer wants to preserve. Because goats have a reputation for eating just about anything, they are strategically placed to target invasive plants, while protecting the native plants. With his ecology background, Langeslag believes the goats are doing what traditionally was done by elk, when they roamed across Minnesota in abundance, eating leaves in the summer and bark in the winter. Goats are picking up where the long-gone elk left off after they disappeared from Minnesota in the mid-1800s.
“They actually have a hierarchy of what they eat and the order and time of year,” Langeslag said. “Every different season has a plus and a minus,” Langeslag said. “May is garlic mustard season and then that starts to taper off because it starts to go to seed. For buckthorn, we can almost go to that year round, thistles are June and July and the vines are all year.”
Langeslag said the goats have become quite the draw for people visiting parks and public land where they are grazing, and Stadler said people come out to Carleton College intentionally to watch the goats. He’ll get emails on occasion from visitors wondering where to find them.
“Our fencing goes right to our sidewalks,” Stadler said. “They’re really well received here on campus; almost therapeutic to a point. A lot of folks like to schedule their days with a walk to where the goats are to go visit with them, so it’s been fun.”
By Dan Greenwood