Lani Malmberg wanders the meadows, hillsides and waterways of the West, hooked staff in hand, pitting 1,500 cashmere goats against pockets of unwanted weeds that infest the landscape.
A full-time traveling goat herder with a master’s degree in weed science, she works out of a travel camper where she also sleeps. But Malmberg, 49, lives largely outdoors under open skies, herding goats from one patch of wild weeds to another with the help of five canine companions.
“Bring ‘em back, Bru,” Malmberg calls to her lead herding dog. The Border collie jumps out of the bushes, looks around, then dashes to nip two straggling goats back toward the herd. Task completed, Malmberg coos, “That’ll do Bru,” then finally barks, “Down!” to get the hard-working dog to stop and rest.
Employees help set portable electric fences at each new job site before unloading the goats from two large four-deck semi-trailers that transport the animals. Malmberg’s day allows a lot of free time between chores that include watering the goats and then guiding them to new grazing plots. Occasionally a wound needs tending or an orphaned kid needs bottle-feeding.
Malmberg’s company, Ewe4ic Ecological Services, has a list of repeat clients, from municipal governments to private landowners to homeowners associations. She tends the goats year-round, staying at each location from a few weeks to several months. A hundred goats can graze about an acre a day and Malmberg’s fees start at about a dollar a day for each goat.
The cost of each job depends on the nature and location of the weeds, a subject Malmberg knows well. In fact, she says she’s kind of a weed herself, living off other people’s land in any of 10 Western states from Kansas to California. Unlike a weed though, Malmberg and her herd of grazing goats leave the land better than they found it.
Malmberg believes weeds are a symptom of an ecological imbalance, and her goats help restore the land to a natural state. “My higher education mostly qualifies me to hawk chemicals,” Malmberg says, “but I want people to know they have better options.”
Originally from Nebraska and then Wyoming, Malmberg left the family ranch in the late 1980s when poor economic conditions crippled many small ranches. She returned to school at age 33, earning degrees in environmental restoration, biology/botany, and eventually weed science at Colorado State University. In 1998, she launched her unique business, borrowing money against her pickup truck and her sons’ college savings to buy her first 100 goats.
Word of Malmberg’s weed-eating goats spread like, well, weeds. It turns out her service is sorely needed to keep weeds from taking over large tracts of land, especially in places with rugged rock crevices and steep, craggy hillsides, and in areas close to water where city laws and public concern prevent the use of chemical weed control.
Her business is full service. Before setting her goats to graze, Malmberg seeds the land with native grasses. While the goats munch the weeds and fertilize the seeds, they mulch and aerate the soil with their tiny hooves. Malmberg says weeds are the goats’ gourmet food of choice and they seem to know which plants belong there and which ones don’t.
“The weeds are smarter than the native plants, the goats are smarter than the weeds, and the only things smarter than the goats are the Border collies,” Malmberg says.
Robert A. Lee, a zoologist and director of environmental management for the city of Cheyenne, Wyo.., and a regular client of Malmberg’s business, credits the goats with reducing Cheyenne’s overall weed infestation by more than 50 percent, without using a drop of herbicide. “The goats are great,” Lee says, “but Lani Malmberg’s weed science expertise is what sold us. She didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.”