Local farmer, Bradford Woods partner to test goat grazing's effect on invasive species

Goat cheese can be found on almost any upscale restaurant menu, goat milk lattes are a staple at trendy cafes, and the new fad of goat yoga -- yoga practiced in tandem with live goats -- is sweeping the nation. There's no denying that goats are having a moment.

And Indiana University is not immune to this goat fever. Bradford Woods, IU's outdoor center, is partnering with local farmer Kaitlin Hossom to test the power of these petting zoo favorites to manage the spread of invasive plants.

Kaitlin HossomView print quality image
Brown County farmer Kaitlin Hossom received a grant from the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program to research the impact of goat grazing on invasive species. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Hossom received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program to research the use of goat grazing as a method of invasive species management. Her research aims to answer which plants goats will eat, how quickly they'll eat them and what their impact is on other plants in the area. She's also interested in uncovering business opportunities the goats can provide.

"I'm really looking to find out if there is a market for this type of service," Hossom said. "What is this worth to people, and what is the appropriate goat-to-land ratio."

Hossom is a former employee of the Agape, the nonprofit that occupies and operates from the horse barn at Bradford Woods. So when she was looking for a patch of overgrown land to use for her experiment, she thought immediately of a hillside next to the barn. While she could have had the goats graze on her own farm, she said she saw a partnership with Bradford Woods as an opportunity to educate the public about invasive species. Bradford Woods associate director Tim Street agreed that Hossom's project aligned with the outdoor center's values.

"This project really fits with our mission, because the university is a steward of this land and the natural resources here, and these invasive species don't belong," Street said. "We need to ensure that the right plants, birds, insects and pollinators are present, and part of that is managing invasive species."

From the top: The portion of the overgrown land on the right has been grazed by the goats, and the portion on the left shows how the land looked before the grazing; so far, the goats' favorite plants to eat are multiflora rose and poison ivy. Photos by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

To run her experiment, Hossom is letting seven of her goats graze half-acre sections of land at a time. She takes weekly photos to track progress and is working with an arborist, Andrew Norman of Norman Arbor Care, to identify which invasive species are present and what the goats will eat. After the entire plot of land is grazed, she will have the goats graze the half acres again, documenting which plants resurfaced and which were eliminated with the first graze. Her grant is for two years, so she'll repeat the entire process next summer.

She or her assistant, whom she hired with funding from her grant, visit Bradford Woods every day to check that the electric solar fencing is still intact, make sure the goats haven't been visited by any predators, and give them some water and a little love.

Two weeks into the experiment, Hossom was already surprised by her findings. It took seven goats only two weeks to graze an area of land that she expected would take 10 goats three weeks to graze. She expected the goats to prefer the saplings, but instead they ravaged the multiflora rose and poison ivy. She's still interested to see if the goats will eat bramble berries -- a species many homeowners wish to rid from their land -- and if their grazing will affect the amount of mosquitos in the area.

Tim Street and Kaitlin Hossom with a goat View print quality image
Tim Street, left, said Hossom's project aligns with Bradford Woods' mission. Photo by Chris Meyer, Indiana University

Beyond being better for the environment by minimizing the need for harmful herbicides, Hossom said, goat grazing can be a more effective way to clear invasive species. They can reach spots that humans can't, can graze on terrain too rough for large machinery to operate on and don't cause the same erosion issues that machinery can. The goats' droppings can also help fertilize soil.

"Goats are great because they can get into steep wooded areas or terrain by water where machines and people don't work," Hossom said. "I'm finding that people don't really know what invasive species are, and I think more people would be open to helping stop the spread if they knew more."

With the goal of educating the public about invasive species, Hossom is hosting an open house from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, July 13, at Bradford Woods. Street said the outdoor center is excited to welcome local homeowners and landowners for an activity that's a bit outside the norm.

"This is a unique partnership, but it's perfect for our mission to serve the community," Street said. "We've been serving the community for more than 60 years, and this is a very hands-on way to do that."