Spring is one of my favorite seasons – the daylight increases and the temperature gets warmer, and that means that I can spend more time outdoors! On the other hand, spring also means that I need to clear the sprouting weeds from my yard before they get out of hand. Just yesterday I spent an hour picking weeds from my front yard. The area of concern for my property is my backyard, which consists of a steep slope that makes the weeds difficult to access. Now, I could just let these weeds go, but that produces lots of fuels, or things to burn! Removing these weeds is especially important because we know that wildfire travels faster on a slope.

One option to consider is using grazing animals to eat my weeds! With little knowledge about grazing animals, I asked Michael Beaudoin, coordinator of The Nevada Network of Fire Adapted Communities, a few questions since he’s been involved in many grazing projects. Here’s what he had to say:

What animals are used for grazing?

Horses, cattle, sheep and goats can be used for grazing. Each of them has a set of benefits and drawbacks during grazing. The size of the animal and the type of grazing can affect what plants they target. Horses tend to clip grasses off at the ground because they have upper and lower sets of teeth. They can also cause more soil compaction. Cattle are heavy animals that consume a large amount of grass, but don’t clip vegetation as low. Sheep and goats are more gentle, and are better at reducing fuels on steeper landscapes.

What do goats and sheep or other grazing animals eat?

Goats are browsers that prefer leafy vegetation from shrubs and trees. This can be a risk when the target vegetation is located near ornamental vegetation. However, they can eat a large range of grasses and are very well-adapted to Nevada’s temperature extremes and rugged terrain. Sheep will graze cheatgrass, a flammable non-native plant found around many of Nevada’s at-risk communities. Horses and cattle will mainly graze cheatgrass while it’s green and in the fall after the seeds drop. Goats will graze a variety of plants, including plants with thorns.

Will they eat my dead weeds?

Yes, goats and sheep will eat your dead weeds, depending on their species. However, both species will also eat plants that you may not want them to eat or that they should not eat. Halogeton, death camus, larkspur and certain species of vetch are common weeds that can kill grazing animals. Grazing cheatgrass and other plants when they are dead or dormant will likely require protein supplementation to ensure proper nutrition of the animals. Knowing what plants are in the target area is critical to accomplishing beneficial grazing while ensuring animal health.

When should these animals eat the weeds?

Flammable annuals provide the best forage quality and are best controlled in the early spring (March-April) and in the fall after seeds drop. Some species, like cheatgrass, are difficult for animals to graze when mature due to the presence of stiff, barbed seeds that can injure the animals and make it more difficult to digest. Grazing should occur in at least two consecutive years before reduction in the weed seeds will be observed. Heavier grazing can have a multi-year effect on reducing fuels.

How are these animals contained?

Goats are infamous for being escape artists. Portable electric fencing is the best containment material for goats. An electrified perimeter or cross fence can be charged by a portable generator or battery. Guard dog species, such as Anatolian (shepherds) or Great Pyrenees, need to be included in the management herd to protect the goats from coyotes, mountain lions and other natural predators. Sheep require the same management and are less prone to sneaking under or over fences. They can also be herded effectively in Wildland Urban-Interface areas. Cattle and horses require heavier and more permanent fences if used in smaller areas.

How would I prevent them from eating my flowers?

Fencing important plants off with an electric fence is the best way to prevent goats and sheep from eating them. Flowers and other important plants should be fenced off in a 5-foot radius to ensure that grazing animals can’t reach through the fence to eat your prized flowers. It is a risk to have these animals in landscaped yards, and using them in larger lots and adjacent to communities is preferable to alleviate risks of grazing non-target ornamental vegetation.

There are a few local companies who will bring their grazing animals to your property. I’ll be looking into this and I urge others to do the same, as it is a great way to reduce the threat of wildfire!

headshot of Jamie Roice-GomesJamie Roice-Gomes is the outreach coordinator with University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s Living with Fire Program.  She earned her Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and a Master of Arts in Interactive Environmental Journalism. She was a public relations assistant for Conrad Communications, a public information officer intern at the Nevada Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, and a Biological Science Technician at the USDA-Agriculture Research Service. She also enjoys volleyball, the Great Basin Desert, and spending time with family. Contact Jamie at 775-336-0261 or roicej@unce.unr.edu.