A few months ago, a picture on my FB feed showed geese weeding a field. For a farmer looking for organic alternatives, this is a unique option. The researchers at MSU thought the same thing and are now conducting a 2-year study on weeder geese and tea fields. Judson LeCompte, Research Associate at Mississippi State University, was gracious enough to take a few minutes and answer some questions about the geese and the study. He also sent me some ridiculously cute pictures! Enjoy!
USLTG: What sparked the interest in researching weeder geese?
Judson: As we have been looking at factors that would affect tea growers in Mississippi, weed control kept coming up as a problem that we didn’t have a very good answer to. We can use a few different herbicides, but what happens if a grower wants to be organic? One day while talking with one of our growers, he mentioned the idea of using geese. I thought he was crazy but I looked into it. There were a couple of studies done in the 1990s, but nothing recent. I called him and asked why he thought this was such a great idea, and he said, “Judson, if it doesn’t work it will make a good story.” So far he was right, it has been very interesting. People give you really funny looks when you have 12 geese walking behind you on campus.
Judson: Our geese are White Chinese Geese. This breed was developed from the Swan Goose, Anser cygnoides, in Asia as a dual purpose breed for both meat and egg production.
USLTG: Does the type of goose matter? Can you do this with any breed?
Judson: Maybe. It depends on your intent. If you have a crop that is fragile, like young tea plants, it is important to have a smaller breed, like the Chinese Goose. If you were growing something like mature fruit trees, a larger meat breed like Embden Geese would be suitable and you would have a larger bird for slaughter. Chinese Geese also have a longer neck allowing them to get in places other geese might not be able to reach. They are a noisier breed, so hopefully it will make them more intimidating to predators. But overall many breeds have been used as biological weed control for hundreds of years.
USLTG: Are there certain crops this is ideal for?
Judson: From my research I have found they have been used to weed alfalfa, asparagus, beans, beets, berries, castor, citrus, cotton, grapes, herbs, hops, melons, onions, potatoes, and trees. The key is that they prefer to forage on tender shoots, leaving behind tougher shoots with a waxy cuticle.
Judson: In the U.S. there are some organic farmers that utilize geese for weed control. Internationally, China has been using weeder geese for hundreds of years. Geese were widely used across the U.S. until the introduction of conventional herbicides. These herbicides gave excellent control allowing farmers to produce a higher yields and eliminating the need for geese. It is important to note that each grower will have to determine the amount of weeds that are suitable for their cropping system. Geese are not going to give control that would be similar to conventional herbicides.
USLTG: How do you keep the geese from leaving?
Judson: Our geese are still in a brooder which is just a place to keep them warm and dry until they are fully feathered. Once they get fully feathered they will permanently go to a fenced holding pen. When they go to the research plots to weed they will also be fenced to a certain area of tea field. Right now we go on walks around the farm to let them graze for a couple of hours a day. They have imprinted on me and will follow me everywhere. I should change my job title to “The Goose Father.” They are domesticated so they generally will not fly. If we do have one that likes to be adventurous, we can trim the flight feathers from one wing to make them unbalanced when they try to fly. This procedure doesn’t hurt them, it is like getting a haircut. They are also easy to herd and move where you want them to go, so for farmers that don’t want to fence in their field they can just herd them like sheep.
USLTG: How do you figure out the number of geese you would need?
Judson: There are a few recommendations around but I think a farmer should learn as they go. Each farm is going to be different in regards to weed pressure, crop, types of weeds, and climate. A figure we are going off of is 6-10 geese per acre. Keep in mind the geese do not have to weed 24/7, they can be held in a pen until weeding is necessary. You could have 50 geese per acre but they wouldn’t be able to graze as long per acre and you would have to supplement their diet with feed.
Judson: Right now our goslings are almost 4 weeks old and they eat loads! Research that I have seen with the Canada Goose shows they eat around 4 pounds a day in green forage.
USLTG: Where would one begin if they were interested in doing something similar on their farm?
Judson: Information and research on geese as a biological weed control has been limited. We are hoping to be able to share our results and management techniques, but that will be once the study is complete. Currently there are a few sites for hobbyists and many of the hatcheries provide information on using geese as weeders. Also, check with your state extension office, they should have information on raising geese.
A huge thank you to Judson for sharing his experiences and expertise. We will check in with Judson periodically to see how the geese are doing and find out the latest news. Do you have any experience working with feeder geese? Have questions about this form of weed control? We want to hear about it!