By CRISTINA JANNEY
John Bird and his wife, Jo Ann Jennings, have land along Big Creek on the edge of Hays that had been overgrown with weeds.
The couple wanted to avoid using chemicals to kill the weeds, and the location of the strip of land near buildings made burning impractical.
Instead, the couple brought in Mary Powell and her 75 goats. Powell and her Barnyard Weed Warriors travel across the state of Kansas clearing weeds in a sustainable way.
"They are completely natural," Bird said. "When they leave, they leave only goat berries, which are fertilizer for the plants we have remaining that we want to encourage to keep growing."
The goats eat the "garbage" of the plains, Powell said. They eat many of the noxious weeds and trees while leaving beneficial native grasses such as bluestem, Indian and buffalo.
In eastern Kansas, Powell and her weed warriors have worked on large projects to mitigate sericea lespedeza, which is a rapidly spreading flowering plant native to Asia.
The goats will even eat cedars, which act as a natural dewormer for the goats.
The goats will eat knee-high brush to the ground and can clear up to half an acre per day, Powell said. The adult goats will even get up on their hind legs and eat invasive vines out of trees up to six feet off the ground. They will eat 3 to 5 percent of their body weight per day.
They aren't heavy, so they don't compact the soil. The goats' hooves also aerate the soil, which is beneficial for plants that remain.
The goats arrived on the Bird farm Monday and are scheduled to leave tonight. By the time the goats are finished, they will have cleared about 5 acres on the Bird and his wife's land.
Powell stays on site with the goats while they work, making camp with the goats and her border collies.
"They broke my cot," she said of the goats. "I throw a tarp down and a sleeping bag, and I wake up with dogs on one side of me and goats on the other."
She uses an electric fence to keep the goats in the area they are working, but she said the goats rarely test the fence. She really relies on her herd dogs to control the movements of the goats.
Powell, 56, has an animal science degree. She worked as a cowboy and in other aspects of the ag industry before starting the goat business at age 50. She has farms in Elk and Lincoln counties when she is not on the road with the goats.
She said she loves her goats and her work. The goat business allows her a very flexible schedule and gives her a steady stream of income.
"They are my family," she said. "They are my children."
She breeds her own goats for the herd. She not only earns income through the weed mitigation business but sells the kids.
Not using chemicals was especially important to Bird because of the property's proximity to Big Creek. The City of Hays has wells for drinking water in the Big Creek aquifer.
"We are sitting on top of one of the main aquifers in Ellis County," Bird said. "This is the Big Creek aquifer, and this may be one of the biggest parts of it — this farm.
"My grandmother drilled it into us that we should stay away from chemicals."
The farmable land on the site is used to grow alfalfa without herbicides or pesticides.
Because the area the goats are working includes the steep banks of the creek, a contractor would have had a difficult time getting machines into the area to cut the weeds.
Powell said the terrain was no problem for the goats.
Hiring the goats cost about $350 per day, but Bird said that was less expensive than what the couple would have paid to have someone come in with machinery and herbicides to clear the brush.
"It's a win-win situation," she said. "The good Lord made these animals the perfect garbage disposal for the junk."
Bird invited friends and neighbors to the farm to interact with the goats Tuesday night. One neighbor already expressed interest in hiring Powell and the goats to clear weeds on his land.
Ed Hammond, candidate for the 111th Kansas House seat, was on hand and said Bird's goat project is a good example of sustainable agriculture.
"There is a negative to using chemicals constantly," he said. "To have a demonstration of another option I think is important to the community."
The goats are accustomed to people. Powell regularly has visitors to her herd while the goats are working and uses the goats for educational programs.
Not all of the goats have names, but many of the regulars on her crew do, including Matthew, Chompsky, Party Gloves, Aaron and Walter.
Small children giggled as they petted the goats — some of which were as tall as they were. Adults kneeled in the dirt to rub baby goats between their tiny horns.
Bird said he has really enjoyed watching the goats on the property.
"I could sit here and watch them for hours," Bird said. "They're so cute, and they're just gentle as can be and you can walk in among them."