Lani Malmberg's cashmere goats probably don't even know they're working.
The 600 goats have already spent the morning eating their way up and down an irrigation ditch on Jim Schlinger's property a few miles south of Bridger, devouring the thick grass that hangs over the lip of the ditch, munching on wild rose bushes and stripping the leaves and bark off Russian olive trees.
After the goats have eaten their fill, Malmberg and her two young herders, assisted by three extraordinarily energetic and proficient border collies, move them a quarter-mile west to an alkali flat. The nearly lifeless patch of ground, covered with a thin film of white alkali powder, has already been sown with grass seed. The goats' job is to till, aerate and fertilize the soil, which they do with their sharp hooves, grinding in the manure and nitrogen-rich urine produced by their earlier feast.
"In three years, this place will look like a golf course," Malmberg says.
The goats are just doing what goats do, taking nutrients in one end and extruding rich organic matter out the other, but Malmberg says they are marvelously efficient machines, useful for weed management, brush control, reseeding and restoration, erosion mitigation and flood control.
That's not all. "They're self-propelled," Malmberg says. "And diesel right now is $3 a gallon."
She says goats are the perfect antidote to overgrazing because they eat what cattle and horses don't. A horse or a cow will eat weeds in a pinch, if there's no grass to be had, but for goats,
Malmberg says, "grass is their last choice."
Goats also chew their cud for a long time, and because of the lateral movement of their powerful jaws, they not only chew, but grind weed seeds so only a minuscule percentage of them will be able to germinate after passing through their digestive tract. And when goats are turned loose to irrigate and fertilize a patch of ground, they knock down and pulverize the vegetation they don't eat, providing mulch as well.
For erosion control, Malmberg can drive a herd of goats up and down a steep gulley, using the border collies to control their speed and hence the action of their hooves. If they move fast, their hooves will quickly crumble the soil, slowly flattening out the incline. Then it's just a matter of seeding, watering and irrigating, as on level ground.
"I can run water uphill in the belly of a goat," she says.
The best thing about goats, in Malmberg's estimation, is that they accomplish their varied tasks without using chemicals. Her dislike of chemicals is as pronounced as her love of goats.
"I hate herbicides," she says. "I know too much about them. I had to learn all about them in grad school."
From cows to goats
Getting into the goat business wasn't easy for the Wyoming native. She was brought up around cattle, and with her ruddy complexion, big-brimmed straw cowboy hat and tight jeans, she still looks the part. But as she put it, "I'm a cattle rancher that couldn't make a living in cattle."
After going bust in 1985, she managed ranches in Colorado for a while, worked in the oil fields and then, at 33, decided to give college a try. She earned degrees in environmental restoration and botany/biology from Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo., then got her master's in weed science from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
It was at Fort Collins that she first read about using goats for environmentally friendly, chemical-free land restoration, and she later managed a project there involving goats. She was soon hooked. In 1997, after mortgaging her pickup and accepting money from her two sons, who cleaned out their college funds to back her, she went into the goat business.
Now she calls herself a "grazeer," an expert in grazing. She's on the road all year, working on projects from Canada to Mexico and Nebraska to California. She gets mail at her brother's ranch in Lander, Wyo., but she doesn't own a home. She lives out of the camper she pulls behind her pickup. She hauls her own water, uses solar panels for electricity and washes up with a shower bag, using 1.5 gallons of sun-heated water.
"I work 365 days a year, and so do the goats. … There's no such thing as not having work," she says.
Malmberg is 48 and has been divorced for five years. She says she's lost some of her employees to people they've met on ranches, but for her, "getting married is not a priority." Then she adds, "I have a fabulous social life. I meet so many good people."
Not all her work has been on ranches. She has also worked in the heart of cities, including Denver and Boulder, Colo., and Cheyenne, Wyo.
In Cheyenne, she's made a big fan of Bob Lee, the city's environmental manager for the past 34 years. One of his big jobs has always been trying to control leafy spurge on the banks of two streams, Dry Creek and Crow Creek, that run through the Wyoming capital. Federal regulations prohibit the buildup of weeds and brush on the streams, which can cause flooding by clogging drains in high water.
"We tried everything," Lee says, including hand-pulling, the use of beneficial insects and every legal herbicide they could get their hands on.
No matter what method was used, the spurge came back almost as soon as it was gone. Then Lee heard Malmberg give a presentation during a conference on weeds at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She was talking about goats, and she was passionate on the subject — passionate and convincing.
The upshot was that Malmberg was hired six years ago to tackle Cheyenne's weeds. The results have been dramatic, Lee says. The stand of leafy spurge has been reduced by about 50 percent, and it would be closer to 75 percent if spurge on the F.E. Warren Air Base, upstream of Cheyenne on Crow Creek, didn't cause an annual reinfestation.
For the past five years, Malmberg has brought 1,000 to 1,500 goats to Cheyenne, splitting the herd up between the two creeks. She comes twice a year for a little less than a month at a time, grazing her goats up and down the creeks and using them to fertilize the stream banks, which have been seeded with native grasses. Crow Creek is now home to trout and blue heron, among other creatures, that hadn't been seen there in years.
"Nothing else has ever created any reason for these native species to come back," Lee says.
Malmberg charges $1.50 per goat per day, which works out to a cost of about $150 an acre, Lee says. Chemical spraying costs about $100 an acre, but with the cost of diesel fuel rising, the two methods are probably much closer in price, Lee says. And the goats are having a lasting effect, which he could never get from herbicides.
"I'm not anti-pesticide by any stretch of the imagination," Lee says. "I want those products available if I need them. You just don't reach for them first."
Most of the chemicals that work best on leafy spurge can't be used within 100 feet of open water, Lee says, and most herbicides kill not only weeds but also grass, leading to erosion problems. Herbicides also attack tree roots, and in high, dry country like Cheyenne, native trees like cottonwoods are coveted.
Lee says there was some skepticism when he first suggested bringing Malmberg to town, but now, "the city fathers are tickled to death." He intends to have Malmberg back every year.
"It's a done deal, as far as I'm concerned, as long as I'm here," he says.
The perfect personality
The prospect of working in urban areas persuaded Malmberg to use cashmere goats.
"As soon as I laid eyes on that breed, I knew I had the breed that would make my idea work," she says. "They're very polite and very respectful. I have to have that personality trait to work around people, especially in urban areas."
She says they manage to retain their wild instincts but easily follow orders. She uses a portable 4-foot-high electrical fence to pen them into the ground she wants them to work. She rarely turns the juice on, though, because they are so accustomed to working within the fencing. Besides, any of them could vault over the fence if they got the notion.
In addition to the personalities, there's something to be said for the beauty of cashmere goats. With their curving horns and long, variously colored fleece, they are a joy to see in motion.
"It's entertaining is what it is; the whole thing," says Jim Schlinger, the owner of the Bridger ranch where Malmberg was working. "It's way more fun than creating dust and pollution. It's quiet and very effective."
Schlinger, an excavation contractor, used to own land in Jackson Hole, where he got to know Malmberg when she was just starting in the goat business. He became one of her earliest investors and owns half the herd that Malmberg was running on his ranch. Malmberg has another 600 head currently working under a hired hand in Nebraska, plus a flock of nannies with new kids in Cody.
Schlinger says that when he bought his 350-acre spread near Bridger four years ago, it was badly overgrazed and very salty. Goats seemed to offer the only means of restoring the alkali flats.
"There was really no way to rehab it, and that's what I wanted to do," he says. "You can't do it with a tractor because it's just too alkali and too soft."
He says his place has about 110 acres of irrigated land in good shape, 75 acres of decent grazing land, 50 acres of heavily overgrazed ground and 40 to 50 acres of "pure salt." So he's looking at restoring roughly 100 acres over three years, in addition to maintaining the ditch through his property.
He could accomplish some of what he wants done with chemicals, Schlinger says, but it wouldn't do anything for the salt flats, and on the grazing land it would be a continuous battle against weeds. Goats can restore some balance to the landscape, which he intends to lease out for winter grazing and for sustaining birds and wildlife.
"In the long run, there's really no other way to do it," he says.
Malmberg, who serves on the board of directors of a national anti-pesticide group, Beyond Pesticides, says the use of goats for weed management and land restoration should become more popular as people learn the true cost of chemicals. It's not uncommon to use goats in other parts of the world, but it's new to the United States, where people are slow to accept some ideas.
"Americans are just terrible at instant gratification," she says. "They want to spray it right now, watch it turn brown and fall over."
If the sprays just killed weeds, they wouldn't be so bad, she says, but they kill insects and soil microbes, too, pollute water, cause health problems for human beings and leave lots of dangerous containers and other wastes behind.
"I always say the best thing about us is that we leave. We do all the work and then we leave. … What a simple, fabulous solution to a bad problem."