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‘The Goats Ate All of the Flags’

A year after Bethel first rented goats to manage invasive plant species on Bethel’s campus, there have been a few laughs—and ample research opportunities.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

May 07, 2019 | 8 a.m.

Student Joshua Turek and Associate Professor of Biology Amy Dykstra work together in Bethel's greenhouse

Joshua Turek '19 and Associate Professor of Biology Amy Dykstra work together in Bethel's greenhouse

In spring 2018, a few new residents caused quite the stir on Bethel’s campus.

A herd of 20 goats—rented from the local goat-for-hire company The Munch Bunch—arrived on campus last May and went to work on a few fenced acres between Lissner Hall and Chalberg Hall. They specialize in “mob grazing” as a natural method of brush control aimed specifically at Bethel’s pesky buckthorn. That’s an invasive plant that was brought to the United States as an ornamental shrub in the 1800s and restricted in the 1990s after crowding out native varieties. At Bethel, buckthorn has been pulled and cut and treated with herbicides for decades—but it’s still prominent in the campus ecosystem and continues to edge out more desirable, native trees and shrubs.

A goat

Goats specialize in mob grazing, a natural method of brush control that Bethel is employing to fight invasive buckthorn.

One solution: goats. They are expert eaters. They happily wander their space, doing a number on the buckthorn, other understory plants, and anything else they see. They’re also cute, and they’re becoming part of a growing number of landowners’ maintenance strategies. They’re a cost-effective, chemical-free, and fun way to beat buckthorn. But Bethel also sees another benefit to their stay: they’re an interesting topic for research.

While living on a campus filled with budding scientists, the goats have become the topic of study for several groups of biology students doing their required Senior Research. Here are a few of them:

 

Do goats impact vegetation long-term?

Jessica Lillie ’18 and Lilee Donahue ’20 spent summer 2018 studying the goats’ impact on various species of vegetation. The idea was to designate test areas within the goats’ pen and in non-goat-grazed control areas, analyzing the vegetation pre- and post-goat.

Chart of the average buckthorn leaves and stems in ungrazed and grazed pens: Pre-Goat (May), Post-Goat 1 (June) and Post-Goat 2 (September).

Average horizontal percent cover of buckthorn leaves and stems for ungrazed and grazed pens: Pre-Goat (May), Post-Goat 1 (June) and Post-Goat 2 (September).

“But the goats ate all of the flags, so [in October] we weren’t able to locate our test areas!” says Donahue with a chuckle. Hannah Van Sickle ’20 is selecting a more goat-resistant marker so that this summer—when a larger herd comes to campus—the study is more definitive. She’s considering screw-in metal pet stakes.

The obvious goal for the goats’ presence is to remove buckthorn, but the students are doing quantitative analysis of exactly how much vegetation they’re removing, and whether they have a lasting impact.

 

Does goat poop contain germinable buckthorn seeds?

Joshua Turek ’19 is a biology major asking another important question: does goat grazing just delay the inevitable spread of buckthorn? He first became aware of the buckthorn conundrum when Professor Paula Soneral had students ferment the berries, leaves, and stems into biofuel and use it to launch a rocket. They were getting at ethical questions like whether it was efficient—or if not, whether they believe people have a responsibility—to create a useful product out of a nuisance.

“We were looking into maybe getting a grant to install an industrial fermenter in the biology department to use the biofuel in place of natural gas in our instruments, etc. That’s how I first got interested in buckthorn,” says Turek. “One way to see if goats are effective is to ask ‘is buckthorn there anymore, or not?’ But you have to also ask if the goats are successful in breaking down the seeds. One of the problems is that because buckthorn stays green for so long, birds eat it for a long portion of the growing season, and then run it out the other end, so to speak.”

Goat grazing effectively defoliated buckthorn shrubs, but they leaf out again. Because goats are a relatively new way of dealing with the plant, at least on a purposive level, nobody knows yet how many goat treatments will break down the plants enough that they don’t return. So far, Turek has found no buckthorn seeds in goat feces.

Plants grow in a greenhouse

Joshua Turek '19 has planted goat feces in Bethel’s greenhouse, under optimal growing conditions, to determine if buckthorn or other native plant seedlings can grow from it. So far, no buckthorn has germinated, but other native species have.

“This is really about two things. One, impacting the ecosystem and keeping Bethel’s campus beautiful for future generations. But also, if we get these papers published, we could have an impact on other organizations, other universities, to have an impact on their buckthorn,” Turek says.

 

Birds and biblical responsibility

Assistant Professor Melissa Cordes keeps a population of starlings on campus, and this year Turek will experiment with feeding buckthorn berries to the birds to see if their digestive systems have a different effect on seed viability than the goats’. Starlings are among a small number of bird species that naturally eat buckthorn, so their proximity makes for a logical partnership. The team will be able to compare buckthorn germination rates between untouched buckthorn plants and those digested by goats versus starlings.

“Why is it important to get rid of an invasive species?” asks Associate Professor of Biology Amy Dykstra. “Invasive species can decrease biodiversity, which is so important to the health of ecosystems. You’ve got all this biodiversity that’s a result of God’s intentional creation. But sometimes it’s discouraging. The goats knock the buckthorn back, and then the plants leaf out again two weeks after the goats leave.”

Professor of Biology Sara Wyse ’05 explains that the more biodiversity we have, the more the environment is able to provide cleaner water, better air quality, and more productivity to benefit consumers. Locally, organizations like Boston Scientific and Land O’Lakes are also investing in the removal of buckthorn, and they’re realizing there’s no quick fix. At Bethel, the effort is also a long-term labor of love—and aimed at more than tangible results.

“We’re called to be Christ-followers and to love our neighbors. This is just one opportunity to put our boots on the ground and be a good steward and neighbor to Arden Hills and the city of St. Paul, by not letting our buckthorn grow out of control. We want to handle what we’ve been given here, above and beyond the scientific ramifications of this work, because we do exist in community...everything we do is a way to live out the love of Christ.”

— Professor of Biology Sara Wyse

Study Biology at Bethel University

Bethel University has a reputation of academic excellence infused with a deep commitment to Christian faith. Faculty and students work together to ask hard questions, and their work flows out of a responsibility to reflect Christ in every setting. In the Department of Biological Sciences, students choose from seven distinct majors, learning about the natural world so that they can make a difference in it.

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