When settlers first started fanning out across the Canadian Prairies, there were two fixtures of the natural ecosystem that simply had to go -- the bison and wildfires, both of which roamed freely across the landscape.
As terrifying and destructive as they were, they also played a role in renewing the natural prairie vegetation by trampling or burning the scrub brush.
It wasn't such a big deal for grain farmers. Aspen poplar saplings were no match for the plow. But keeping brush and invasive weeds such as leafy spurge from consuming grazing lands has been an ongoing battle for ranchers. If ranchers do nothing, they can lose two to five per cent of their grazing capacity per year.
According to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, the losses in beef production due to pastures polluted with spurge amount to more than half a million dollars a year.
An estimated 1.2 million acres of Manitoba are already infested, a nine-fold increase over two decades. And it is spreading, moving along roadsides -- often helped by ditch mowers -- and across what little remains of natural prairie, squeezing out the native species.
Over the years, there have been a myriad of attempts to find a solution to these invaders. Leafy spurge researchers have tried pesticides, burning and tillage. They've imported beetles that like eating spurge, a bio-control measure that helps but can't contain the invasion.
Everything from bulldozers to mixing pesticides with diesel fuel has been tried for brush control, measures that are prohibitively expensive and offer limited success.
Now some producers are eying a four-legged solution: goats. They thrive on brush and weeds, including leafy spurge. They actually prefer it to the grass species favoured by bovines, which makes them complementary pasture buddies.
So instead of paying for access to grazing land like most livestock producers, some goatherds are being paid $1 to $1.50 per animal per day to graze other people's land.
It's well worth it for the landowner when compared to the cost of other brush-control methods, some of which can't be used in areas inaccessible by tractors and spraying equipment.
These browsing bush-beaters have proven amazingly effective at controlling invasive species. The grazing doesn't actually kill the plants, but it suppresses them and prevents seed production. "If grazed at a sufficient intensity, (it) will lead to a depletion of root reserves and an associated decrease in plant vigour," a government fact sheet on controlling leafy spurge says.
So we have a well-established and worsening problem that is sucking millions of dollars out of the province's economy. We have a control mechanism that is effective, economical and environmentally friendly. And it involves a species of livestock for which market demand is on the rise, particularly among newcomers to Canada.
So why aren't there nomadic goatherds, possibly university students as either summer employees or entrepreneurs, roaming the Prairies, rotating from spurge patch to bushes while earning enough to live through the winter without student loans?
It's entry-level animal agriculture with no requirement for multimillion-dollar production complexes or manure storage. Operators don't have to buy or lease land; they get paid to use someone else's.
The upfront capital costs for goatherding would be minimal -- a guard dog or two, a form of transportation such as a horse or ATV and a camper for shelter. And unlike the "high on a hill lived a lonely goatherd" version in the Sound of Music, today's technology would keep herders as close to their friends through Facebook as they are in the city.
Consider this concept against the backdrop of other animal agriculture in Manitoba. It's been well-established in the past few weeks that our hog industry is in crisis again. With two of the largest operators on the Prairies now in receivership, one of them for a second time, it seems that production model is due for a rethink.
Now a new report from the Canadian Agricultural Policy Institute (CAPI) suggests the cattle sector is suffering because it has expanded beyond its capacity to market. Adding a few goats to the cattle equation might reduce the cost of grazing while providing producers with an alternative revenue stream.
Of course, a rapid surge in goat production would be folly without a co-ordinated development strategy. But there's potential at least for growth -- if only for these animals' role as brush-browsers.
Maybe it is a crazy idea. But when you read what's happening to the rest of animal agriculture in the province these days, you have to wonder which is worse -- being crazy or depressed.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org .