by Ben Gagnon | The Roaring Fork Sunday | July 9-15, 2000
Sh-thwoosh, sh-thwoosh, sh-thwoosh “Isn’t that the most beautiful sound asked Lani Lamming proudly, her old-style goat-herding staff in hand.
It was certainly a sound like no other. it came from 600 goats briskly munching on Canada thistle and houndstongue last week at the Windstar Land Conservancy property in Old Snowmass.
Sh-thwoosh, sh-thwoosh, sh-thwoosh.
It’s one thing to see a few dozen cows spread out in a pasture, lazily munching on grass. It’s quite another to see these goats go at it.
They stand close together, methodically snapping buds off the top of some nasty-looking weeds. It seems like they’re on a mission, which they have gladly dared to accept.
Like her goats, Lamming is used to the media spotlight.
Her traveling goat-herding operation has been featured on CBS News’ Sunday Edition, the Discovery Channel and in The New York Times during the past year.
Last week, 600 of Lamming’s goats spent three days at the Windstar property, which serves as the headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental think tank.
The goal is to switch from recent herbicide treatments that have burned grasses while battling thistles -to a more natural method.
The goats then spent a day at the Seven Star property off Brush Creek Road near Snowmass Village, which is owned by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board.
“Thistles? Baaa!” was the title of the PitCo press release announcing the new program. It went on to say that the effectiveness of the “novel weed control program” would be gauged by comparing the goat-munched pasture with adjoining properties.
On July l0, the goats will be consuming noxious weeds on steep hillsides as part of the reclamation of the old mine site at Coal Basin, near Redstone.
It’s been only two years since it all began, and Lamming’s booked through Christmas.
“We pooled all our money, bought a hundred goats, a fax machine and a cell phone and got to work,” Lamming said, noting that her sons, Reggie and Donny Benz, are co-founders and co-owners.
They’ve been on the road ever since, attracting employees who enjoy the nomadic life, and the belly laughs that seem to erupt from Lamming every few minutes or so.
It’s no surprise that the company is called Ewe4ic Ecological Services Inc.
“We’re not typical goat herders. We’ve got different levels going,” Lamming said. “We’re making a new image.”
Along the way, Lamming has invented what is undoubtedly the first positive ecological spin for cashmere goats in North America.
First of all, the goats naturally prefer noxious weeds such as thistle and houndstongue, which are invading pastures across the West, and they have voracious appetites. Lamming lets the goats loose on a field of weeds before they’ve had a chance to go to seed.
Secondly, the goats can carry sacks of native grass seeds with little holes at the bottom. As the seed is spread, the goat hoofs trample the seeds into the soil -without the soil compaction that comes from tractors.
Third, the goats spread “organic pellet fertilizer” -naturally.
And finally, they’re self-propelled.
“No pollution,” said Lamming. “No noise.” Lamming has composed a drawing of all these activities occurring at once, complete with circles and arrows, and one “actual size” pellet. The hand-out is entitled “Range Revegetator with Human Educator.”
Dale Will, director of the PitCo Open Space and Trails program, has a background in organic farming, and he was happy to see the goats munching away on plumeless thistles at the county’s Seven Star property last week.
Because the plumeless thistle has a two-year life, Will said the success of the goat-munching program could be known in 2002.
“If [the thistle] doesn’t succeed in getting seed out over two years, it loses,” Will said.
Lamming’s goats will be back in September, before the thistle at Seven Star has a chance to eject its second round of seeds this year. Also, it’ll be a good time to plant, so the goats will be carrying sacks of native grass seed on their backs, spreading a new carpet.
“You get the grass seed in the ground with the action of the hooves, and you get something to poop all over it just before it rains,” Will said. “What could be better?”
The Cashmere Industry
Why cashmere goats?
It seems that processed cashmere sells for $15 an ounce -a price that inspired several Rocky Mountain entrepreneurs to buy cashmere goats during the past decade.
But they discovered that processing cashmere was harder than they thought, and there’s no cashmere processing facility in the United States that can handle volume (most cashmere is processed by hand in China).
In March 1998, Lamming bought her fIrst 100 cashmere goats from a disappointed cashmere entrepreneur, and has since bought other small herds from similar sources.
“When they bailed out, they really wanted to get out of the business, and I picked ’em up,” Lamming said, adding that she hopes to start reaping cashmere harvests when three prototype cashmere processors in the U.S. are able to handle volume.
True to their name, the cashmere goats are colorful, unlike the white angora goat for example, and Lamming insists they’re much smarter too.
“The only thing smarter than a cashmere goat is a border collie,” Lamming said.
Last week, the goat herd certainly responded to a border collie named Tony, who was taking orders from Lamming at the Windstar property in Old Snowmass.
“Come by!” Lamming yells, which tells Tony to circle the goats in a clockwise direction.
The goats stay together in a tight group as they run from Tony. They’re reacting to the dog as they would to a predator. Stay together.
“Get around! Get around!” Lamming yells to Tony, which means keep going.
Then in a quieter tone – “Walk up. Walk up.” That means to bring the goats straight ahead.
“That’ll do,” Lamming says, which means stop.
Now, 600 goats are all crowded together, standing at attention it seems, like so many noxious weed warriors.
“They graze intensely in the morning and chew their cuds in the middle of the day,” Lamming explained. “And then they take off again on a voracious eating cycle and then bed down. The families stay together at night, all close together, with their heads resting on each other.”
Lamming hooks a kit (baby goat) with her goatherder staff, and cradles it in her arms. Time for a group picture. She’s clearly proud of the herd, and this is only half of them -the other 600 are on duty in northern Wyoming.
“If I say ‘come by,’ the goats’ll look up because they know Tony’s coming,” Lamming said. “When they’re out of food, they’ll want to crowd onto the trailer to get to the next spot.”
Charging By The Goat
In the meantime, the goats have carried out a number of tasks.
“They fertilize, till and mulch until the grasses out compete the weeds,” Lamming said. “In three years it’ll look like a golf course in here …You’ve heard of over-grazing grass, well, I’m over-grazing thistle. Anything with a nice bud on it, they just snap those things off. It’s a natural diet preference, like Italians with tomato sauce.”
Lamming is chock full of sound bites.
“This is the only weed control that reproduces on the job,” she said, laughing. “Tractors are just a big pile of depreciation.”
Ewe4ic Ecological Services charges by the goat.
For a relatively easy job, such as the visit to Windstar, the cost was 50 cents a head, per day. For the job at Coal Basin, where the steep hillsides make the work harder, it’s $1 a head, per day.
Trucking costs vary. If there is only one place to go in a certain area, then the costs are higher. If there are multiple visits in one region, the trucking costs can be split among the clients.
Lamming and her crew have done business in Bear Creek Park in Colorado Springs, and along the South Platte River in Denver. They’ve been to Jackson Hole as well.
After a Denver TV station used a helicopter to offer daily “eye-in-the-sky” coverage of the goats last April, the story ended up on CBS’s “Sunday Edition” and CNN last summer.
“They like being around people, and that gives me the ability to work in cities like Colorado Springs,” Lamming said. And people love the goats.”
In addition to the border collies, Lamming uses a moveable electrified fence to keep the goats in one area, which comes in especially handy in urban areas.
“They really respect the fence,” Lamming said.
So far, the only urban problem has been big, so-called tame dogs, one of which ran through the herd and snapped 17 necks in one pass.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Lamming met her husband at the Wyoming Annual Weed Conference.
Fred Lamming was the pest and weed supervisor for Teton County, and still is. Lani has a master’s degree in weed science from Colorado State University.
Now, Fred comes to the “goat camp” on weekends and on vacations. Lani and her crew never stop. When last winter hit, she took the goat herd to devour weeds at an army base outside Pueblo.
She credits her work ethic to her Swedish lineage, and her youth on a cattle ranch in Wyoming.
“The traditional grazing or weed management people work in the summer and just feed ’em hay in the winter,” Lamming said. “We move the herd south and stay right on top of the weeds. Where they are, that’s where we go.”
Lamming’s schedule changes with the weather. If it’s getting dry in southern Colorado, that means weeds will go to seed faster, so she’ll move up the schedule to get down there in time. The idea is for the goats to devour the weeds before the seeds have a chance to spread.
Conversely, Lamming can delay a visit to an area that’s getting good rainfall, as the moisture means the weeds will take longer to go to seed.
“Before this, you couldn’t pick up the phone and order 1,000 goats for 30 days and then have them leave,” Lamming said. “The goats are happy, the dogs are happy and the people are happy.”
Lamming’s goat herd has;done its job in four states so far- Wyoming, Montana,.Utah and Colorado and she expects to expand to Kansas and northern California this Winter.
She’s booked solid through Christmas, but the summer drought has killed some weed populations, and therefore a few spaces have opened up in her nomadic schedule.
At the same time, she’s been getting calls for fire control, it seems the goats will eat oakbrush and sagebrush too.
The Forest Service in Montana wanted Lamming’s goats to clear 56,000 acres of leafy spurge, which are bushy weeds with yellow flower-like tips that cattle and horses won’t touch.
“It would have taken 250,000 goats a summer to do that job,” Lamming said. “I said I’ve only got 1,200 goats. I can’t do it.”
Lamming has a loyal and friendly crew.
Mary Beer was the latest to sign up -the Wyoming native is taking a break from earning her master’s degree in special education.
“I’d rather deal with a bunch of goats than a bunch of parents,” Beer said, laughing. “You can’t please everybody, but these goats are easy to please, and they don’t talk back.”
Beer is planning to use her goatherding experience as part of a lesson plan for special education students.
Joe Kuckla, who was working on the Front Range at the time, signed on last summer.
“My dad called from Pennsylvania and said there’s some lady in Denver herding goats and I better look into it,” Joe said with a smile. “My father has sheep in Pennsylvania and he’s had similar ideas about using sheep in urban settings for brush and to cut grass. I helped Lani set the fence one day and that’s how it started.”
Kuckla also has a media story to tell.
“My uncle Tom was in the hospital in Pennsylvania and he saw some goats on TV in Denver,” Kuckla said. “He told the other people in the room, ‘That looks like my nephew.’ And then he looked closer and said, ‘That is my nephew!”
Kuckla, who is a music student when he’s not herding goats, made up a song recently about a baby goat named Brownie.
Sometimes, a doe, or mother goat, will abandon one of her young. The crew then adopts it as a pet. One favorite was named Brownie.
“They think they’re people and follow us around causing trouble,” said Kuckla. “But they’re funny.”
He then took out an acoustic guitar and strummed a country-style tune of his own making.
“Brownie was a kid who thought he was a man, but he was just another goat,” sang Kuckla, as the crew cracked up. “He was raised on the bottle, and Lani was his model,..”
As the sun goes down, Tony chases the herd toward the trucks, as if to say, “Our job is done, and we’re movin’ on.”