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One of 30 goats from Munch Bunch go to work on the hillside of Prospect Park in Hudson, Wisconsin on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

One munch at a time: Goats take up the fight against invasive plants

ST. CROIX FALLS, Wis.—Mr. Billy likes to take naps with his herder. Thud sounds like a dog. Snuggle has obvious preferences for attention.

The goats of the Munch Bunch each have colorful personalities and a common ambition: they'll eat your pesky invasive plants for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"You cannot be unhappy around a goat," said Allysse Sorenson.

She should know; together with husband Dan Sorenson, the couple manages a flock of 115 goats. The human-goat tag team makes up the Munch Bunch, a business that combats invasive plant species with goat appetite rather than chemicals or machinery.

The Sorensons created the St. Croix Falls, Wis.-based business in 2015, after a trip to Sweden inspired their love for working with goats. Their goats are hired to clear away problematic plants occupying residential and public spaces. A solar-powered fence is used to rope off their designated plant buffet.

Buckthorn is a noxious weed. An invasive shrub, it sprouts its leaves before other plants, giving it a competitive advantage over native plants for light and water, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

It can have a pervasive negative impact on the environment, and can be a pain to get rid of.

Enter the goats, who eat at the buckthorn and give the rest of the plants a fighting chance.

Communities seeking to rid stretches of the weed opt to use the animals "instead of just wiping out everything with chemicals," Dan Sorenson said.

The Sorensons, who describe themselves as "nomadic farmers," consider the business an around-the-clock job. Their goats are working four to six sites at any given time within an 80-mile radius.

The Munch Bunch has grown its customer base through referrals.

When the goats work on a residential property, their presence can spark environmental discussions and viewing parties in the neighborhood.

"If you put goats on your property, your neighbors are gonna come over and say, 'What are you doing there?'" Allysse Sorenson said.

Using livestock to control plant growth is "something old, something new," said Karl Hakanson, University of Minnesota Extension educator in agriculture and natural resources.

The disappearance of wild grazers, like bison, have allowed invasive plants to establish a foothold in the environment. Since the land evolved alongside grazers, environments depend on the animals to keep non-native plants in check, Hakanson said.

The idea of using goats as the natural solution to manage unwelcome plants is gaining traction.

Hiregoats.com, a goat services listing website run by the Sorensons, lists five goats-for-hire-type businesses spread out in Minnesota and central Wisconsin. Among the Munch Bunch's three competitors in the Minnesota market is Goat Dispatch.

The company got its start six years ago, and today owner James Langeslag manages 275 goats. Goat Dispatch specializes in serving urban areas, where city ordinances were initially an obstacle.

"Now I've started to see a lot of cities opening up and being glad to allow our practice to work here," Langeslag said.

The city of Hudson, Wis., passed an ordinance last year allowing residents to keep goats for invasive plant control. Residents who had worked with the Munch Bunch were among those at the forefront of the ordinance's passage, according to Forum News Service.

Thanks to the ordinance and a later amendment, the Munch Bunch has been in Hudson's wooded Prospect Park since May to clear away buckthorn and will return this month after a break. Two grazings of the park's 8 acres cost the city $1,200.

Previously, the city relied on volunteer power to curb the encroaching buckthorn, according to Tom Zeuli, parks director of Hudson. While steep terrain in the park can be dangerous for humans, it's no issue goat hooves can't overcome.

"Once we get the buckthorn cleared out ... we'll have this beautiful view of St. Croix River Valley," Zeuli said.

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