Goats Save the Ranch
by Dorothy Noe of Rhine Cliff, NY
When 1,300 working goats bolt, they spill across the bunkhouse porch, and dart into corrals before meandering back onto the range. In their wake are befuddled horses and a scampering goat herder.
Traditionally, goats provided meat or milk, but Kelly Boney’s professional herd is the weed-killing agent of the Ute Creek Soil and Water Conservation District Watershed Restoration – a project designed to contain invasive plant species and restore ranch land to grass production. When in working mode, her goats move en masse nibbling snake grass and mesquite and rearing onto their hind legs to reach the leaves of Tamarisk trees.
The Tamarisk is a lovely tree. Its feathery leaves and soft plumes of pink flowers sway in the hot western winds. Introduced to America from Asia in the 1800s for its ornamental beauty, this tenacious, quick spreading, fast growing deciduous shrub was soon used to secure riparian ecosystems; it seemed ideal.
Today, the romance has cooled and this tree is more often than not referred to by its less exotic name – Saltcedar – and designated a noxious weed. Tamarisk appear fragile but, in reality, are one tough tree. In the drought stricken west, studies estimate that a mature Saltcedar can transpire more than 200 gallons of water daily via deep taproots.
In spring, storm clouds boil out of Texas blotting the turquoise sky that shelters Kelly Boney’s 4,000 acre ranch. For 100 years, cattle and wheat sustained the Boney family. But times change. Not far from Boney’s San Jon, New Mexico home, wind turbines slowly slice the blackening air with silver blades and Boney knows first hand that flexibility and education are keys to managing the business side of ranching.
In 2001, Mike Delano, the driving force behind the state and federally funded Ute Creek Project, was looking for someone to herd goats as part of the effort to control Tamarisk on the wind-scoured plains of eastern New Mexico. He sought a person who knew and loved the land, could manage livestock and tolerate isolation.
Seven years ago, Kelly Boney, a 42 year old woman with a ready smile and a hearty laugh, worked in a windowless office. The hard reality of small ranch economics dictated that she work a day job to support the ranch. Her ranch was under what care her 85 year-old father could manage.
Boney, with a degree in agricultural business administration, took the job and began following the dust of 400 – 1,300 red Boer goats for six months of the year
“Mike introduced me to a professional goat herder,” laughs Boney recalling her scant training beyond a cow-punching heritage that makes her unique among goat herders. “I had a phone apprenticeship with her, but driving cows since I was a kid, I just jumped right in – and made some mistakes. You have to learn to read the land.”
Eating invasive vegetation that compete for the scant water supply and inhibit the growth of grass, goats are a biblical-age solution to a modern-day scourge. To restore the land, 1,300 goats mimic the buffalo herds that once grazed the region – breaking the soil’s crust, stomping decadent grasses, knocking over dead trees, fertilizing with their droppings and embedding seeds. And, all the while, the goats voraciously defoliate and ultimately kill the water-guzzling Tamarisk.
While the grant money for this project looked considerable, it was balanced by the price tags on many items. Beyond the salaries for Boney, Delano and a field manager were equipment and livestock: hundreds of goats, nine Great Pyrenees to guard the goats and a dozen Australian herding dogs, two off-road vehicles to follow and steer the herd and one horse when rough or wet terrain necessitates abandoning ATVs. Substantial amounts of dog and horse feed must be at hand as often the ranches were more than two hours from a feed store. There was portable fencing to concentrate the goats’ nibbling action or corral them at night, a trailer to haul everything from ranch to ranch and another trailer for Kelly to live in should there not be a bunkhouse invitation.
The downside of her life is desolation. To find Kelly in the winter, you must travel 12 miles of dirt road off I-40 to reach her ranch. During the other seasons, Boney herds her nibbling goats across vast, empty expanses of ranch rangeland. Despite the distance from human contact, Kelly Boney laughs – a lot!
“The worst part is the isolation,” she confesses with a hearty laugh that almost makes you forget the lurking loneliness. “As much as I love the goats, once a week I needed to not see the rear end of them. Besides, I lose between 2-5% of the herd during a season to sickness and lameness.”
“I herd from May through November, six days a week. I’m up at 5:30 and moving the goats by 7 a.m. In the summer, I break in the heat of the day and then resume until dark. Sometimes I use the ATV, sometimes the horse and sometimes I’m on foot. When I’m pushing hard, I try to cover 20 – 30 acres a day,” Kelly explains without complaint, but concedes, “At the end of the day, often I was too tired to even make and chew a P & J (peanut butter and jelly) sandwich for dinner and could barely swallow a yogurt. Sundays I saved to ask for patience and give thanks.”
In November, she sold down the herd for meat and kept the “stars” – those acclimatized, comfortable working in a herd and able to teach the new goats she buys in the spring by example. Over the winter, the reduced herd munched the invasive junipers on her ranch.
After two years of herding, Boney, on the advise of her accountant, made enough money to incorporate. With tongue-in-cheek and a nod to New Mexico’s enduring legend, she became The Outlaw Land Improvement Company.
The mascot is, of course, “Billy the Kid.”
Through the millenniums, goats have been a livestock of choice for their meat, milk and non-discriminatory eating habits. But, for Boney, beyond the financial considerations, her role in the Ute Creek project gave her the freedom to support her ranch in a somewhat traditional way, care for her father and enjoy sunrises and sunsets of unparalleled beauty plus restore the land she loves.
That was Boney’s routine for five years. It is generally agreed that Tamarisk will never be eliminated; it takes a few years to get these resilient trees under control. Therefore, it stands to reason that Boney and her goats would be in demand for years to come. Boney planned to take her grant-funded experience and knowledge to continue herding independently, but a shoulder injury and an aging father intervened.
Having a contingency plan is always a smart business decision. With gasoline prices constricting the profitability of herding on distant ranches, Boney wrote a grant to restore her ranch as a wildlife habitat for the Lesser Prairie Chicken. She now has funds to clear her ranch mechanically and use her herd of 200 goats to keep weeds under control. Boney will finish her studies to become a certified educator of holistic land management at which point she will open her ranch as a learning center for ranchers and public land managers. In the meantime, her USDA inspected goat meat (free of hormones and antibiotics and almost entirely grass fed) is sold at farmers’ markets. Sheep now graze the Russian Knap Weed on her ranch and will soon supply lamb meat. In addition, capitalizing on her herding experience, she is a speaker at such organizations as the Society for Range Management.
With characteristic humor, she adds the following perspective: “We live in a microwave world but the goats offer a safe, crock pot solution to the Saltcedar problem – if you have patience. And, besides, goats have given me the freedom to live on my ranch and keep an eye on Dad.”