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How can I use livestock to manage weeds?

Answer: Weeder geese have been used successfully both historically and in more recent times. They are particularly useful on grass weeds (and some others, too) in a variety of crops. Chinese or African geese are favorite varieties for weeding purposes. Young geese are usually placed in the fields at six to eight weeks of age. They work well at removing weeds between plants in rows that cannot be reached by cultivators or hoes. If there are no trees in the field, temporary shade will be needed. Supplemental feed and water must be provided as well. Water and feed containers can be moved to concentrate the geese in a certain area. A 24- to 30-inch fence is adequate to contain geese. Marauding dogs and coyotes can be a problem and should be prevented with electric fencing or guard animals. At the end of the season, bring geese in for fattening on grain. Carrying geese over to the next season is not recommended because older geese are less active in hot weather than younger birds. Additionally, the cost of overwintering them outweighs their worth the next season. Geese have been used on the following crops: cotton, strawberries, nursery trees, corn (after lay-by), fruit orchards, tobacco, potatoes, onions, sugar beets, brambles, other small fruits, and ornamentals.

Additionally, chickens can be effective at consuming weed seeds near the surface, if pastured in a field prior to planting. Also, managed grazing by ruminant livestock can help reduce weed populations in fields during the off-season and can help reduce production of weed seeds elsewhere on a small farm, thus reducing weed-seed levels much the way that mowing can.

Be aware when using any livestock (including chickens and geese) for weed control in crop fields, however, that there are important food-safety considerations. Livestock are essentially applying raw manure to crop fields, so their use should be timed and managed to prevent food-crop contamination, in accordance with state and federal standards. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards restrict raw-manure applications to more than 120 days prior to harvest for any food product that comes in contact with manure. Read more in this article from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Check with local health officials before using livestock to manage weeds in your production areas to learn what the current regulations are.

I recommend that you review the ATTRA publication Sustainable Weed Management for Small and Medium-Scale Farms. It discusses several strategies, both proactive and reactive, as alternatives to conventional tillage systems. Options include mulching, competition, crop rotations, and low-toxicity control alternatives.

Also be sure to check out the Weed Management section of the ATTRA website, where you’ll find additional useful publications, podcasts, and videos.