September 5, 2008

Kudzu, a vining weed that can grow a foot a day, doesn't exactly have those in Appalachia singing its praises for much of anything. In fact quite the opposite is true; most want the invasive pest to stop covering and killing every living thing in its path. But goats don't seem to understand all the negativism surrounding the lush vegetation.

Barry Arnett retired from Wall Street and came to Rockholds in Whitley County to work a 225-acre farm that's been in his wife Ginny's family for more than 80 years. They built a log cabin on a hillside and began to shape up the farm. Arnett said he called the local University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service office to get some advice on what to do with the farm. After three recommendations, he decided meat goats would suit him and the farm quite well. So when UK researchers from Robinson Station in Breathitt County called Arnett to see if he would like to partner in a project, he hopped on the chance.

"I was tired of sitting on my front porch and looking at the kudzu (across the road). I thought it looked ugly," Arnett said. "But when you stop and see 20 acres of kudzu, you start to wonder how you're going to get rid of it. You're either going to use lots of chemicals - spend lots of money - you might could get it out with a bulldozer, but you can't use a tractor. So, we talked with (David) Ditsch (Robinson Station Superintendent) about eradicating kudzu, and then the more we thought about it, we thought ‘you know, you could use kudzu as a source of food,' so we just needed to find some ways to manage it and keep it under control."

Ditsch and Extension Associate for Goats, Forage Production and Plant and Soil Sciences Shaun Jackson worked with Arnett to outline a research project involving goats' potential to control, eradicate or use kudzu as a nutrition staple. After 60 days on kudzu, they evaluated the goats' performance and their effect on the kudzu.

"We are finding they can't eat the kudzu fast enough, and from the data we collected today, animal performance is improving," Jackson said. "It appears there's a possibility we don't have enough goats on the kudzu right now, and that it is a good forage for them."

Ditsch chimed in and said literature reveals that kudzu should be able to provide most of the nutritional needs of goats. He does recommend producers add a good mineral supplement to help with some of the micronutrients kudzu does not supply.

The research is also showing it may take quite a few goats to tackle an acre of the rapid-growing rebel.

"We want to establish a good stocking ratio for people who want to eradicate kudzu or for someone who wants to manage kudzu as sustainable goat forage," Ditsch said. "We are testing three, six and nine goats per acre in this project and it's pretty obvious that... right now, the kudzu is winning. So we may have to evaluate after this grazing season and see if we need to add in more goats per acre if eradication is our goal."

Jackson admits goats may not be a viable answer to fully eradicate kudzu, but that doesn't shortchange its potential benefits to goat producers one bit. With more and more first-time farmers entering the goat business, many of them wonder what they will economically be able to feed their goats. And there's a lot of kudzu in Appalachia.

"I think it'll be beneficial on both ends if we can get our ratio up there, to make recommendations for people who want to eradicate it and also for people who want to use it as a major feed source for their goats," Jackson said. "There may even be an opportunity for goat producers to place their animals on a neighbor's kudzu-covered land, and both will benefit. It would be a win-win; they get feed for their goats, and the other people get rid of their kudzu."

UK Veterinarian Patty Scharko was on hand to help check the goats' body condition scores, weight and FAMACHA scores - a measure of parasite activity in goats taken by looking at the color of the insides of their bottom eyelid. She said for the most part, she was pleased with the parasite results and that perhaps eating higher on the plant was helping the goats stay further away from the pests' favorite spot - nearer to the ground.

Ditsch said producers who choose to use goats for eradicating or controlling kudzu will face a few challenges, the biggest of which could be fencing.

"Fencing is a challenge; it took quite a bit of time for us to construct these fences. The land does not lay uniform and you have to use a combination of fencing types," he admitted. "If you have something that grows as aggressively as kudzu, you're going to have to put a lot of goats in a smaller area to provide enough pressure on the kudzu. Temporary fencing may be an answer - fencing you can move as you go to get the goats where you want them. Plus, during

peak growth, kudzu can grow 12 to 18 inches a day. It grows up in the trees and does damage to timber. It will grow so rapidly that it gets into and shorts out the fences. So there is some management involved keeping it out of the fences."

Arnett said after watching the goats tackle the kudzu, his perception has changed somewhat about the invasive weed.

"... in Kentucky since we're really blessed with lots of good green stuff to eat, you want to have the goats forage as much as possible," he said. "And, kudzu is especially good, because it's an invasive plant and it looks ugly, and if the goats can get some good out of it, that's great. At 22 percent protein, it's quite good for them."

He said at the beginning of the project, the goats did initially lose some weight, but he and the UK team attributed that to the new forage. Arnett recommends goats be transitioned gradually onto any new forage so their digestive systems have an opportunity to learn to process the new forage slower. The goats have begun to regain the weight and are adapting to the kudzu well now, he added.

The project is formally expected to last about two years, but Ditsch said they will probably try to expand it and tweak it some after that. The result hopefully will be published guidelines for goat producers and landowners with recommendations of stocking rates to eradicate or maintain kudzu for forage.

For now, Arnett is happy to be back in Kentucky shaping up the family's historic farm and believes everyone could learn a lot from the weed-eating small ruminants.

"It certainly has dawned on me while sitting and watching the goats...watch how they eat...and interact with each other and how they fight sometimes, people could learn a lot about life from goats," he said.

For more information on the Arnett farm, visit the Web site at http://www.sharpefarm.com. To learn more about goat production, contact your local county extension office.

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