Copy of Daves DI banner wide.jpg (25535 bytes)

Reading Weeds

Biological Control

Weeder Geese

 

Weeder geese, usually white Chinese geese, used for 2,000 years, provide part of the resolution of a weed control dilemma on organic farms. Organic farms have had trouble competing economically with other farms that use herbicides. Bio-control of pests is becoming very popular, so attention has turned to this ancient practice of using grazing animals. Weeder geese can take care of many troublesome grassy weeds and some broadleaves.

 

The benefits from geese are many. First herbicides can be eliminated or reduced if indeed you are still using them. Geese will not compact the soil as heavy machinery or people will. They work rain or shine, seven days a week. They can be put into wet fields to work when machinery would bog down and damage the soil structure.

 

Their agile necks allow them to pull weeds close to and within the crop plants, where neither hoe nor machine can go. In place of the weeds geese leave a nitrogen rich manure.

 

A permaculture principal stated as "problem into asset" or "waste into resource" is illustrated by transforming a weed problem into goose pasturage. The weeds become a resource of meat, down, or breeding stock.

 

Timing is very important as to how mature the weeds are when the geese start munching. If you put geese into already mature grass, they will eat the tender stuff and strip the seeds, but you'll still have the stubble standing there. The mature grass is just too course and unpalatable. Even some of the grasses, their prefered food, won't be eaten unless its tender.

 

One must start somewhere. With geese it's goslings and hatching the baby geese or goslings is best left to professionals. To make best use of the geese you have to begin early in the weed season. This means that the hatching environment must be carefully controlled to have the eggs hatch earlier than mother goose would normally bring them waddling into the world.

 

Ducks and chickens are omnivore, where geese are strict vegetarians. A lot of people stumble over that. They tell me they have just bought some geese for slug or snail control, it is unfortunate (or crazy) that they spend their money that way. With that in mind let's discuss the basics of where and how to use geese.

So unless you want to learn another specialized trade, have someone hatch them and mail them to you.

There is only so far you can push weed control with weeder geese - that's why there are constraints. They are not naturally hatched for our crops in the maritime northwest early enough to catch the strong spring flush of weeds. That may be different in other climates, but probably not.

 

Sego Jackson, hatcheryman, says "I have never had it successfully happen any other way. I have had other people try to hatch their own eggs, fail, and try to squeeze geese out of me after I'm sold out.

 

These are the people that I had warned in the autumn, saying here's what's going to happen. It's happened before, I've seen it happen. But they just think I'm a hatcheryman trying to make more money, with another sales pitch, where that's not it at all.

 

With other methods of weed control it's a lot easier to clean out the weeds while they are young and its no different using geese. Its a whole different ball game for a young bird to pull up a sprout compared to a well rooted plant. Also for most crops the greatest competition from weeds comes in first 3-5 weeks of growth.

At six weeks of age the goslings are ready to go out into the field and munch weeds. From your experience with local weather conditions, crop, soil, and exposure, you have a good idea of when you need the geese in the field to start on the weeds.

 

Count backwards from that date 6 weeks and you have the date you need to receive the day old goslings. Make arrangements with the hatchery for that delivery date and start making a shelter and holding pen.

Geese need a few simple things to make life on the farm bearable. First is a well constructed covered shelter that they are closed into at night. This protects them from predators. If the shelter is built on skids it can be moved to manage the geese easier. It quickly becomes 'home' and a familiar place to which they return in the evening. As always plan your layout for minimum traffic.

 

The crop area needs to be fenced to keep the geese there. A four foot fence is needed to keep them in an area, where a three foot fence will keep them out of an area. Ideally large areas should have a perimeter fence, then movable fencing can be used to divide the field to move the geese. Electric fencing doesn't work well as the geese are somewhat insulated from the shock. When moving as a group they will tumble right over it.

 

The nicest stuff for moveable fencing is some woven wire covered with nylon, with a few strands of bare wire running through for electrifying it. It comes with light fiberglass poles to keep it upright. This rolls easily and is as pleasant to pick up as a pile of nylon rope.

 

Shade must be provided in the field so the geese can escape the mid-day sun. This can be from trees, hedgerows, crop, trailers or equipment in the field or specially built lean-tos.

 

A holding pen is needed for times when the weeds are (temporarily) all eaten or the crop is in a sensitive stage. Also grasses loose much of their nutritional value in late summer and geese will look around for something else to eat.

 

This pen must be well fenced as the geese will try to get to greener pastures. An alternate pasture is also helpful during these times, and may bring in some off farm credits. Rent-A-Goose comes to the rescue to clean up neighbors weedy acres. This also feeds the geese, solves pen problems, and puts that idle teenager to work.

 

The baby goslings finally arrive, you keep them in a standard poultry brooder cage and care for them for six weeks. Then they are ready to start their field work.

 

For the next couple of weeks you need to you need to protect them from severe drops in temperature, rain, extreme weather changes, and predators. Otherwise they are extremely hardy.

 

The young goslings have incredible appetites, it's pretty unbelievable how much they can eat. What they like to eat are some of the plants that give crops competition and farmers headaches.

 

Young succulent grasses really please their palate. Bermuda grass, Johnson grass, quack grass, sedge and nut grass are eagerly eaten, along with puncture vine, clover, chickweed, horsetail and many other weeds. Geese will also eat fallen fruit in orchards, some un-harvested crops, and crop residues which can harbor and overwinter disease and insect pests.

 

In many crops a small number of ducks can be kept with the geese to help control insects, slugs and snails. The well camouflaged Khaki Campbells or Grey Indian Runners are recommended for this purpose. A few white ducks, such as pekins, can also be kept with the geese to act as a decoy for predators.

 

A predator is more likely to kill a duck than a goose if given the choice, since a duck is less able to defend itself. The white ducks serve as a quick visible check on predation. When one disappears take precautions before you lose some of your more valuable geese.

 

All of these benefits come your way with just the pitter-patter of tiny feet, instead of fuel gussling, soil compacting, heavy cultivating equipment. An extra bonus comes from the nitrogen rich, goose processed weeds thoughtfully distributed over the field. And there is no waiting for the field to dry out, geese don't mind mud.

 

As of this writing, geese are not unionized, and wildcat strikes are very rare. Compared to human labor, cost wise, you can hire a worker for a day or goose for a year. Next problem is finding a good goose girl or boy.

 

While raising the goslings from 1 to 6 weeks in a cage on wire, it is very easy to feed them with weeds that geese normally don't eat. The young geese will then eat those weeds in the field.

 

It is very hard to get old geese to eat things that they don't ordinarily eat or are used to eating. Its a lot like humans preferring the foods that they 'grew up on' and dishes prepared 'just like momma made it.'

 

Warning; be careful about feeding grocery waste to young geese, they will develop a taste for these plants and will eat them in your field or garden. An onion grower fed lettuce (that had onion tops in it) to his goslings. When put out into his field, they ate his onions.

 

There are some problem weeds that geese just wont eat: groundsel, lambsquarter, curled dock (eat seeds) and thistles (eat seeds). But if you have just cultivated a field, and turn the geese loose on it they will eat the upturned roots, and exposed seeds of many plants like dock and thistles.

 

These plants probably have some bitter substance in their leaves (absent in roots) that is distasteful to geese. (Some plants have high concentrations of anti-feedants in the young plant, that decrease in the older plant.) If your primary weeds are those that geese don't eat then it is pointless to have them, and a waste of your time and money.

 

If your primary weeds are ones geese relish, then you will find the additional hand cultivation necessary to remove those they don't like is minimal. The dregs can usually be taken care of with a hoe carried while managing the geese. Many weeds that geese reject are eagerly eaten by sheep, so in combination they can wipe out the weeds on certain crops.

 

There are some crops that you can't use geese on because geese find them as yummy as we do. These are lettuce, brassicas, peas, beans (at certain times), corn, sorghum, grains and (almost) any grasses.

 

Crops that geese can be used to weed are: garlic, strawberries, potatoes, cane berries, tobacco, cotton, mint, other herbs, sugar beets, tomatoes (don't eat green tomatos), onions, carrots, hops, blueberries, evergreen and deciduous nursery crops, and under orchards. Of course this list will vary with management, timing, and nutritional value of the associated weeds.

 

The minimum size of field to start with geese depends on the crop, its value, ones interest in biocontrol of weeds, and local conditions. An acre of herbs may be quite practical where it may not be on 10 acres of _______.

 

Managing 3 geese is no problem, so if they fit into your crop, do it. Usually they don't work on garden scale because there is quite a diversity of plants, many of which geese like to eat.

 

On town lots consideration should made for neighbors who may not appreciate honking geese.

 

The economy of scale and numbers needed per acre depends on many variables: whether there is already fencing, not fenced, what kind of housing is available, kind of crop, type and density of weed, its nutritional value, local climate, exposure, and soil.

 

The safest thing Jackson can say is that in maritime Washington, one acre of strawberries that is cultivated between the rows, requires 6 geese per acre to clean up among the plants and in the rows. With sod in between you can triple or quadruple that number. So the numbers can vary much with a crop.

 

Farmers just need to start working with a crop and the recommended highs and lows and adjust to the situation. We are talking about a complex management situation, you can give farmers some guidelines, tell them what some other people have done from which they can extrapolate, but not specifics. It may seem wishy-washy but blanket statements can't be made like 'for potatoes use five geese per acre.'

 

Some farmers will order too few geese because they need to be economically conservative. In doing that they defeat the whole project, they don't have enough geese early on to do the job properly and the weeds get ahead of the geese.

 

Where if you over-order a little bit then you can always pull off some extra geese and sell them to neighbors or butcher them, but if you don't have enough geese you may have to resort to other methods of control. Goslings are only available mid February through May.

 

Geese like to have water available near where they are gobbling weeds. You can use this to your advantage by placing white five gallon buckets in the sections of a field that you want them to work. There will be some trampling around the bucket so this isn't foolproof.

 

People think of geese floating gracefully on water and think "I need a pond if I'm going to have geese." But with a view of managing these waterfowl water can be a problem. Herding geese past a body of water is a great situation comedy, that is if you can just sit by and watch.

 

The smell of water is very attractive and geese will spend a lot of time trying to get in to paddle around. They also make a muddy mess around a pond if not well designed. Best to keep temptation away and/or under strict control.

 

You can put an older gander with some young goslings because he will help protect them from predators and the gander will show them (to some degree) what to eat, lead them around, get them tuned to the buckets and other things that a good straw boss would do.

 

You do have to supplementally feed the geese or they can starve. They aren't particularly getting a balanced diet on this main course of weeds and you can't tell what or how much they are getting. Feed a non-medicated layer pellet, just at night. Then you don't have to worry about the nourishment that the geese are getting from the weeds unless there is a very unusual weed problem.

 

One garlic grower had some geese that weren't doing anything so all the different reasons were considered that might be causing them not to eat. It turned out that he was feeding them in the morning and they would be stuffed and just sit around all day. When he changed and let them out for breakfast and gave them desert they did a great job on the weeds.

 

A lot of farms feed a lot of other things to supplement the weeds, like grains, but you have to be pretty careful because the feed formulas have been worked out to meet the minimal healthy diet. Otherwise it is pretty hit or miss. The feed has plant residues, different minerals, salts, vitamins (B1, B6, biotin) and other good things.

 

For instance a deficiency of these vitamins causes open sores and calluses on their feet, which cripples the geese. You can dramatically turn this around in days by putting the vitamins in their water. Jackson really came to appreciate human nutrition by watching his animals respond to a good diet.

 

Geese have a undeserved reputation for being bad tempered. Both pampered and abused geese can cause problems. Babied animals look on humans as one of the flock, so the goose must dominate them or be dominated by them. Develop a healthy, respectful fear in your geese, feed them, but don't coddle. Then you will have little problem with them.

 

Geese seem to be able to psychologically scare humans, maybe because their bluff mannerisms are similar to ours. Geese sense when they can bully humans. Of course this can be useful. In U-pick operations put geese where you don't want the pickers.

 

These birds are single minded about eating. Potential for aggression comes when someone is in the way of their food. If a dog is in the way of a goose getting to its dinner, the goose will have its way. As vegetarians they need to take in fairly large amount of food to live and grow and are very oral animals.

 

It has been traditional to use geese in certain crops, like cotton, mint, garlic, strawberries, potatoes, cane berries, tobacco and these uses are now coming back to some extent. The problem with all of this is that we really don't know the best way to manage these systems yet.

 

A fellow in Idaho would take mature geese by the truckload around on a daily basis and be there with them while they weeded, then go on to the next place. He had tried the semi truck method and it wasn't cost effective, other people keep their geese over winter and it works, others don't and wish they did. We are at an experimental stage as far as the economic management of weeder geese.

 

Jackson has learned not to assume anything about these animals. He can just say something definitely if he has seen it himself or if he has heard it from a reliable source.

 

If we wait around for researchers to figure these things out, they will never do it, we really need farmers doing it and talking to each other. The International Symposium on Food and Fodder from Hill Lands meets every six years. These people, who are paid to do research, came back after six years from all over the world, and said "Oh yeah, you can grow pasture under douglas fir and have sheep graze it."

 

You don't need six years of research to figure that out. The research has to happen an a farm basis, there is no time to wait for schools to work things out.

 

There is a serious management problem when geese eat part of a crop. They just don't do that unless they are starving, or accidentally introduced the crop previously. If you find them nibbling some onions and causing some crop damage that way, that's not a big deal.

 

They aren't going to start eating onions, but it is very important that people who are working with weeder geese really pay attention to what's going on in their fields.

 

Look for crop damage, and keep track of what the geese are doing on an hourly to daily basis. If you aren't giving that close of attention, you aren't managing them well enough.

 

When you get a sudden increase in crop damage that is a sign that something is wrong. A potato farmer once had trouble with geese digging potatoes, a number of geese died, and the geese were voraciously eating horsetail. It turned out that they needed to plant the potatoes deeper, and supply some supplemental feed, as the horsetails have no food value for the geese.

 

These two things were going on at the same time and the sign that something was wrong was they were digging potatoes suddenly and getting sick and dieing. When you have something like that happening you have to get out there and really investigate to figure out why.

 

It has been said that the best thing a farmer can put on his field is his shadow. Using geese for weed control demands that someone is closely following the activities of the flock. Geese don't eat apple trees, but they will ring bark apple trees if they don't have anything else to eat.

 

You don't want to find out that the geese have been ring barking the apple trees for a week, you want to see if the geese have nibbled it several times that day. If so, its off you guys go to another field.

 

RESOURCES:

old British poultry books at your local library

 

Using Weeder Geese info sheet

Sego Jackson, Bev Reed

1985,

 

The Book of Geese

Dave Holderread

$6.95