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Weeds and Black Gold

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In 2004, Kathy Voth had an out-of-the-box idea: teach cows to eat weeds. As in, way out of the box.

According to conventional thinking at the time, cows were grazers, goats were browsers, and sheep were something in between. If you wanted to tackle a weed infestation on your farm or rangeland with livestock, you employed a herd of goats. Right? Goats eat weeds. Cows eat grass. (And coyotes eat sheep.) If you didn't want to use a biological remedy, however, then you could return to the standard solution: costly chemical herbicides. In large quantities. After all, what other practical alternative was there? Not cows.

Yes, cows. Over the past decade, Voth has developed a simple yet effective process for training cows to eat weeds, including almost any type of cow and almost any type of weed. There's no gimmick involved. Her process is based squarely on recent scientific research into how livestock choose what to eat and on well-established principles of animal behavior. Voth's process takes only ten hours of training spread over ten days to teach a group of cattle to learn to eat weeds. It works for a simple reason: the cows never realized weeds tasted so good!

However, convincing ranchers, farmers, agency employees and academics to give cows a chance is a much more difficult job, she's discovered.

Let's back up for a second. Why worry about invasive weeds?

Over 90 different foreign plants are recognized as Federal Noxious Weeds. Collectively, they infest over 100 million acres across the nation, including 20 percent of our public lands, and they are expanding at a rate of 8 to 12 percent-an area the size of Delaware-every year. Weeds crowd out native plants, damage crops and forage and contribute to soil erosion. Some can poison wildlife and livestock. Taken together, they are a huge threat, not only to food production but to biodiversity and watershed health, as well.

Weeds can also put human lives at risk. Voth was a public information officer in Colorado in 1994, when a forest fire killed 14 firefighters. The tragedy set her to thinking about the danger we put people in when we fight fires and whether or not goats could help. Goats eat just about everything, Voth knew, so she and a friend started a research project to see if goats could reduce woody fuel buildup. When she discovered that they also ate a wide variety of troublesome weed species, she went to ranchers and told them to add five goats for every cow in order to improve their pastures.

"They just looked at me like I was insane," she said in an interview. "Most ranchers don't want to have goats because they require a completely different kind of fencing and the market is much more difficult to access than the beef market. These were very good reasons and they made sense to me. But I'm not the kind of person you can just say no to."

So she turned her attention to cows instead.    
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