Goats helping restore prairie in Dakota County

Pair pay a visit to Lebanon Hills

A pair of goats paid a visit to Lebanon Hills Regional Park last week to show off their prairie restoration skills. Dakota County is using goats to clear up 76 acres at Meisville Ravine Park Reserve.
A pair of goats paid a visit to Lebanon Hills Regional Park last week to show off their prairie restoration skills. Dakota County is using goats to clear up 76 acres at Meisville Ravine Park Reserve.

The Dakota County Parks department has enlisted an army of goats to help restore prairie land and battle invasive species within its parks this year.

About 100 goats are grazing acres of steep terrain at Miesville Ravine Park Reserve.

“The goats strip the bark off the trees where it’s thin enough, but the larger trees, they stay away from,” said Joe Walton, senior ecologist with Dakota County. “We want the oaks to stay, but we want them to get all that other stuff.”

It will take three-to-five years to be effective, Walton said, a senior ecologist with Dakota County.

The goats save their appetite for smaller shrubs and trees. They grazed during the winter, so there wasn’t much grass or flowers in their diet.

“During the winter the only thing available is the bark, no leaves, so you’re forcing the goats to focus on woody plants,” Walton said.

The goats first started grazing in late fall, and came back again in late winter.

The buckthorn trees, for example, tend to re-sprout from the stump the next year. The goats love the buckthorn berries “like candy” Walton said, so they’ll nibble them down again.

“After a while there’s no energy left in the root, so it dies easily,” Walton said.

This process isn’t unheard of in Minnesota, but it’s the first time Dakota County has used the method. They rented the goats through Goat Dispatch, a company created just for this purpose.

“We rent out goats to people who want to clear out invasive or undesirable plants: buckthorn or poison ivy or whatever,” said Jake Langeslang, owner of Goat Dispatch from Faribault. “We go all over.”

He said they’ve worked in the metro as well as several locations in southern Minnesota where prairie land was prevalent before humans moved in.

“They’re a few prairie remnants left,” Walton said. “In the last 150 years, mostly because of fire suppression, most of the woody brush has encroached on this area. Little aspens, little buckthorns are popping up. We’re trying to push that back and connect the pieces that are still there. … Goats are really sure-footed animals, so it makes sense to use them. It’s harder for people to work with chainsaws on that elevation, but goats have no problem.”

The southern part of Dakota County was mostly prairie before farming came through, Walton said.

“There’s less than one percent of the prairies left in the state,” Walton said. “This area was dominated by prairie. To me, the priority should be to try to preserve it at least in the county parks where we can. It’s a beautiful landscape. Once you start to look at the characteristics, it’s really fun.”eg-goats-2
It’s not the only tool to clear the brush. County workers will come through to take care some of the larger plants the goats don’t eat and a controlled burn doesn’t take out, but it’s much less work with the goats going through first.

Using goats to restore the prairie land and eat invasive species is also environmentally friendly because it decreases the need for chemicals.

“Even if we use chemicals, we try to use as little as possible,” Walton said.

Goats also naturally fertilize the ground while they’re grazing, so Walton wonders if they might see more wild flowers this spring in the area.

“Here the nutrients get scattered throughout the landscape,” Walton said. “If you round it up and burn it, it goes away or it’s just in one spot.”

The pair of goats paid a visit to Lebanon Hills Regional Park last week for an open house for the Natural Resource Management System Plan.

The plan will guide the future of natural resources management of Dakota County parks, conservation easements and greenways. It was the final of four open houses throughout a two-year process that gave the public a chance to comment on the draft plan and discuss it directly with staff and consultants.

There’s no current plans to use the goats at Lebanon Hills, but it could happen in the future.

“If they work well, maybe we could use them here,” Walton said. “Obviously there’s a lot of buckthorn (in Lebanon Hills,) and we’re cutting a lot of it down right now. It may be a good tool to use in the future when they re-sprout.”