Grazing Arizona: Goats vs. Mesa weeds, Round 2 - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Grazing Arizona: Goats vs. Mesa weeds, Round 2

Sheep added to control invasive species at water plant

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Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 3:41 pm | Updated: 4:08 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

Mesa has found dozens of new groundskeepers who are more than a little hungry for work.

As goats and sheep, eating is about all they do.

That’s made them attractive to Mesa as it looked to remove weeds — and even an invasive tree species — from rocky, steep embankments at a water reclamation plant.

The grazers were turned loose on 30 acres Tuesday, and will be visible for about six months to morning commuters on the Red Mountain Freeway stretch of Loop 202 west of Dobson Road.

The city used the goats here two years and was so impressed that it decided to contract for the animals again with Arizona Herdsman Eco Goats. Owner Brad Payne decided to add sheep this time to focus on the grasses. The goats will munch grass, tumbleweeds, various desert plants and even the undesirable salt cedar trees. They eat 8 to 10 pounds of dry material a day.

“They do good on all the stuff you see here,” he said.

The weeds are especially difficult to control at this site because of its steep slopes covered with large rocks that are slip hazards. The goats easily jumped across the terrain and began feasting on grass within minutes of being released Tuesday.

The animals should be most visible in the morning, Payne said, when they go to the higher areas of the property. The basins are north of the freeway and animals can wander right up to the fence on the edge of Loop 202.

The city doesn’t use chemicals to kill weeds at the site because the ponds of treated wastewater percolate into underground water sources. Pulling or plowing weeds is impossible on the large slopes.

Scott Peterburs recalls using a backhoe and chain to pull out salt cedars when he began working at the reclamation plant 10 years ago. He is glad the goats are taking on weed patrol.

“It was time consuming and not a fun job,” said Peterburs, a plant supervisor.

The contract for the animals cost $10,000, but Mesa estimates it’s saving $10,000 to $20,000 in staff time or by hiring a vendor to physically remove the weeds.

The city figures the goats will eat 50 percent to 75 percent of the vegetation. The animals will be fenced into various sections of the property so they’ll focus on eating everything in sight, Payne said. They should even kill the salt cedars by eating the foliage and eventually consuming the bark.

“They just gang up on it and really work on that foliage,” Payne said.

Coyotes made meals of up to 20 goats two years ago, Payne said, despite his placing one overwhelmed livestock guardian dog in the area. The goats were fine at first, he said, but started vanishing once coyotes discovered them. Payne heard a story that one coyote had run across the freeway and jumped a fence into the area, showing how even a 6-foot fence isn’t coyote-proof.

This time, Payne plans to use several dogs. Also, he’ll have a solar-powered, red blinking light at night that will deter coyotes.

“The coyotes think there’s a bigger predator looking at them,” he said.

Payne will check in on the animals often to ensure vandals or coyotes haven’t breached the fence. The retention ponds will supply drinking water.

Payne expects to have at least 50 goats, which until now have grazed in a Mesa pasture, and up to 30 sheep.

Payne is trying to pitch his environmentally friendly weed control service to other cities and said he isn’t aware of any competitors in the area. The weeding-by-grazing approach has become a popular alternative across the nation to using chemicals, with governments, farmers and ranchers using animals to eat invasive plants that crowd crops or that could fuel fires.

The Mesa effort should continue for about six months, city spokesman Ian Satter said. The city wants the animals on the job until the weeds are gone — which the animals are eager to do.

“Anything that looks like a plant, they’re going to eat,” Satter said.

CONTACT WRITER: (480) 898-6548 or ggroff@evtrib.com

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