Goats once again are being employed to help with vegetation management on the Rio Grande Trail between Emma and Carbondale. The goats can clear roughly one acre per day, including noxious weeds. They recently wrapped up their local tour of duty.

For a fourth consecutive year, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority employed goats to help with noxious weed mitigation and vegetation management on the Rio Grande Trail.

Brett Meredith, RFTA trails and corridor manager, is in charge of the project. His team has three primary objectives: vegetation management, building soil health, and education and outreach.

The goats arrived on the trail this year around the middle of August. They began grazing near Emma and steadily worked toward Carbondale. Having completed their tour of duty in the second week of September, the goats were moved on to other delicious projects outside the Roaring Fork Valley.

“We’re trying to be good environmental stewards,” he said. “People come out to the [trail] to enjoy the beautiful scenery and to get exercise. When they see the goats, their faces just light up.”

People ask Meredith every day in the spring, “When are the goats coming back?”

The multi-use trail is 42 miles long, stretching from downtown Glenwood Springs to Herron Park in Aspen.

Goats work efficiently

RFTA contracted with Goat Green LLC, which is owned and operated by Lani Malmberg and Donny Benz, to bring back their herd of hungry quadrupeds. Approximately 225 working goats were used throughout the summer. The goats can clear roughly one acre per day, including noxious weeds.

Goat Green is a family-owned business. Malmberg is Benz’s mother, and she began Goat Green 26 years ago when Benz was 14 years old. Wyoming cattle ranchers by trade, they had a lot to learn when switching from cows to goats. 

Malmberg was up for the challenge. With degrees in environmental restoration, botany and biology, and a master’s degree in weed science from Colorado State University, she pioneered the goat grazing program along with her two sons. Benz earned an MBA from CSU and now handles the business side of Goat Green just as much as he handles the goats.

The goats are supervised 20 hours a day by shepherds from Goat Green. In addition to using electric fencing, Benz engages border collies to assist with herding the goats.

“These dogs are highly trained, do lots of  work herding. We simply couldn’t operate the way we do without the collies,” Benz said. He adds that some of the collies have an estimated worth of around $15,000.

Benz and his crew keep a watchful eye on the goats to make sure they don’t overeat or destroy the terrain they are mitigating. These grazing animals “eat 3 percent of their body weight per day,” Benz said. “That is for the dry matter. In the springtime, they will eat a lot more.” Each goat will serve for about 10 to 12 years.

The Rio Grande Trail is built on former Denver & Rio Grande Railroad track bed.  

“When RFTA inherited the [trail] corridor, it was an ecological disaster,” Meredith said. A systematic approach to managing noxious weeds had been mandated by the state. Spraying herbicides didn’t seem to get the job done, and Meredith soon made a discovery; the noxious weeds were a symptom of an overarching problem of poor soil health.

Meredith found Goat Green while researching solutions to improve soil health. It was a symbiotic match. The goats eat the invasive weeds, aerate the ground and fertilize new growth as they move down the trail.  

Goat Green recently was signed to a new five-year contract, with 2019 being the first of the five. 

“We anticipate bringing the goats in a little earlier next year,” Meredith said. “Timing is everything, especially when you’re using livestock as a tool.”

While two of the primary goals, vegetation management and education, have been a slam dunk for the goats on the trail, more data is needed on soil health. Meredith has begun working with a Carbondale landscape architect firm, DHM, to mine deeper levels of information regarding the health of the soil. They also conduct vegetation analysis, and are developing a revegetation plan moving forward.

He encourages people to write comments on social media, and provide feedback to RFTA on the project. 

“I’m always impressed by the public support. We’d like to thank everyone who came to visit the goats and ask questions,” Meredith said. 

Now that the goats have moved on for 2019, Meredith is keeping busy cleaning up and preparing for winter. “We’ve also been working hard on the Rio Grande Artway project (Carbondale), and there is a lot of catching up on mowing shoulders and clearing sightlines.”