The most obvious benefit in using geese as weeders is to eliminate or reduce the use of herbicides. Herbicides can be expensive and potentially dangerous. With the growing concern over environmental and health problems associated with the use of herbicides on crops, as well as the economic incentives for farmers to market organically grown produce, there is a growing demand for weeder geese.
There are less obvious benefits as well.
Geese will not compact the soil as heavy machinery or people will. They will work seven days a week, rain or shine. They can be put into wet fields to work when machinery would bog down and cause severe damage to soil structure. Their agile necks allow them to pull weeds close to and from within the crop plants, where machine or hoe cannot. At the end of the season, the grower can also process the geese for meat and feathers.
All of this is accomplished while the geese are naturally spreading nitrogen-rich manure all over the field.
Geese in general are a useful addition to many rural properties, but because they can be noisy, they might be suitable for life in the suburbs but should not be kept in the city.
We do not believe that weeding with geese has much practical application for the small gardener. Garden crops must be kept separated based upon their palatability to geese. On such a small scale and with all the other factors that gardeners must keep in mind with their diversity of crops, this is not worthwhile. Geese can, however, be kept to "clip" the lawn and keep the grass in orchards under control. The serious homesteader, who raises a sufficient amount of a number of crops, will find a small flock of geese a tremendous help, if the property and placement of crops is designed with the geese in mind.
Weeder geese are most applicable to the commercial grower who maintains a number of fields that have one crop per field. This simplifies the management of the geese and makes the labor required for their care cost effective.
Geese can be used in a wide variety of crops and situations as their diet includes few broad-leafed plants and favors grasses.
They are used extensively in garlic, strawberries, potatoes, cane berries, tobacco, cotton, mint and other herbs. They can also be used in sugar beets, tomatoes, onion, carrots, hops, blueberries, evergreen and deciduous nursery crops, and in orchards.
Other crops are suitable for their use as well, though more research is needed in this area. For instance, geese can be used in rough-leafed varieties of pineapple but reportedly will damage vegetation of smooth-leafed varieties. Each crop requires somewhat different management of geese, which is why there are no definitive answers with their use. The only experts are those who have used them with a specific crop, with specific weed problems, under specific climatic conditions, etc.
Experiences often vary. One grower has used them extensively under bananas, while another says they pick holes in trunks. The difference is probably management, timing and nutritional value of the weeds.
Geese will eat young Bermuda grass, Johnson grass, sedge and nut grass, puncture vine, clover, chickweed, horsetail and many other weeds.
One grower who has 100+ acres in herbs, has successfully trained geese to eat weeds they normally don't eat. He feeds the undesirable weeds to the young goslings so that they develop a taste for them. In order to have the weeds available for the goslings in the spring, he raises a small crop of these weeds in his greenhouse. This same grower uses sheep in conjunction with his geese to weed the mint. The sheep eat many of the broadleaf weeds that the geese do not eat.
If turned into a newly cultivated garden or field, geese will eat upturned roots and exposed seeds of a number of plants whose leaves they do not eat (such as dock and thistle). Geese will also eat windfall fruit under orchards and some unharvested crops and crop residues, which can harbor and over winter disease and insect pests.
As geese are vegetarian, a small number of ducks can be kept with the geese to help control insects, slugs and snails.
The number of weeders needed in the field depends on the crop, the type of weeds, their abundance, as well as the regional climate and how it affects weed growth. Fewer geese are needed if the crop is mechanically cultivated between the rows since there will be fewer weeds to eat.
An acre of strawberries in the Northwest, that is cultivated between rows, will require a minimum of 6 geese. Fewer geese are necessary in dry climates than in humid climates. The number of geese necessary for each site can only be estimated and numbers then adjusted through experience and observation. Farmers needing to be financially conservative have a tendency to purchase too few goslings to meet their needs and this results in an inadequate weeding and an unsatisfactory experience.
In some crops and climates, where weed growth is extreme in the early spring, more geese are required then later in the year. It is critical to start with enough and eliminate the surplus as the weed growth permits. If too many goslings are raised, some can always be sold and the weeding still accomplished.
Geese should have shade to escape the mid-day sun in hot climates. This can be provided by shade trees, hedgerows, the crop itself, trailers or specially constructed lean-tos.
If predators are a problem, the geese should have a well-constructed, covered shelter into which they are closed at night. They will quickly learn to come to the shelter in the evening on their own if a grain snack is given at that time, and the grower will simply have to close the door or do a minimum amount of herding. If these shelters are built on skids or are otherwise moveable, they will be very useful for moving the geese wherever they are needed. If severe predator problems are encountered, several strands of electric fence around the perimeter of their night pen should eliminate the predation.
Geese must be confined to the crop they are weeding. Fencing geese into the crop area is one of the biggest problems with weeding geese and can be expensive. Fencing should be four feet tall, though some operators manage with three feet. Ideally, large acreages should have a well-built perimeter fence with moveable fences to subdivide the field, to concentrate the geese where they are most needed. Moveable fencing is invaluable and saves money for materials, but moving it around can be cumbersome and costly in terms of labor. Rebar and chicken wire are popular and we've also seen fish netting used and other materials. Electric fencing does not work well, as the geese are somewhat insulated from the shock by their feathers. When the geese move as a group, they will tumble right over the electric fence. Electric fencing will only work if it is easily seen by the birds by hanging flags on the wire and they are trained to it when they are very young. Single strand electric fencing can be effectively used in front of an existing visual barrier, such as a wood plank fence or hedgerow, which the geese could otherwise get through. The New Zealand nylon woven wire electric fencing is fairly effective and is easily moved.
It is often advantageous to have a smaller holding pen that the geese can be held in when weeds are temporarily depleted. This must be especially well fenced as they will try to get back to "greener pastures.”
As all geese eat the same vegetation, any breed will work as a weeder goose. White Chinese geese are often used as they have very active foraging habits and their long agile necks make them very effective grazers. Because of their light body weight, they do little damage to the crops on which they might step.
Young goslings have a more active foraging habit and more voracious appetites than adults, and since they are so light, they do less damage to tender crops on which they might walk. For this reason, it is best under most circumstances to start with young goslings each year. Goslings should be six weeks old before they are put into the fields, which usually requires a March or early April hatch date. Goslings hatched under a mother goose will most probably arrive too late in the spring to suppress the early weed growth.
We can ship day old goslings anywhere in the United States through the US Postal System. Typically, they are hatched on Monday with arrival at your post office by Wednesday morning. They can withstand transit without food and water for up to 48 hours or more as the egg's yolk is absorbed into the gosling's body immediately prior to hatching and this provides adequate nourishment during shipping.
Young Geese In The Field
After six weeks, goslings will be able to go into the field as long as the weather is mild. They must be protected from rain or sudden drops in temperature for several more weeks. When first introduced to a field or new crop, the geese will sometimes nibble at young crop plants until they learn that they are an undesirable food. This damage is usually minimal and is far outweighed by the benefits of using geese. It is best to pull and feed some of the weeds to the goslings as they grow so they develop a taste for those weeds. Otherwise a sudden transition from grain to weeds is a difficult adjustment.
It is critical that the operator be on hand during this initial introduction to observe the degree of any crop damage.
An older goose can be used as an adopted parent for the young goslings. The older goose will teach them what to eat and, most importantly, will help protect them from smaller predators. Several 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. If a duck disappears, you have a warning that predators are around and to take precautions, before you lose some of your more valuable geese.
Weeder geese are kept in a state of slight hunger in order to accomplish the maximum weed control. Birds must be continually observed for any signs of weakness or nutritional deficiencies, since the amount and nutritional value of the weeds will change throughout the season. Each day they should be fed a suitable feed supplement. This must be done in the evening because in the morning you want them to be hungrily eating your weeds. This can be a balanced, pelleted feed or a combination of whole grains.
They also require a constant supply of fresh water. This can easily be provided in five gallon plastic buckets. They do not require swimming water. Geese make frequent trips to their water. This can result in the trampling of tender crop plants near buckets. To some degree, the area in which the geese will weed can be influenced by the placement of their water buckets. When an area is weeded fairly well, move the buckets into an area that is weedier. When checking on weeders and doing your weed related chores, carry a hoe with you to quickly get some of the weeds the geese find unpalatable.
The timing of the use of geese is critical. When weeds are depleted in a field, geese must be removed to a holding pen, pasture or another crop. If they are left in a weed-depleted field, they will starve unless supplemental feeding is increased and, in some cases, will damage the crop. There are many factors involved here. One 30 acre potato farm had tremendous success with geese, until late in the season when they began digging potatoes and dying. They had depleted the nutritious weeds and were now eating nothing but the abundant horsetail weed, which provided minimal nutrition. Some of the geese were starving to death while others had discovered the nutritious tubers.
Grasses lose much of their nutritional value in the late summer and geese may look around for something else to eat. A large flock of geese, which was maintained for several years under a very young orchard, would start nibbling at the bark of the tress about the second week of August each year. They were then transferred to another pasture. It is very important to have a pen to put geese into at these times, while leaving a few in the field to control new growth. Each crop has its own management characteristics. Cane berry growers in Washington have found that geese will eat back the emerging prima canes, making harvest easier. The geese are then removed from the fields in time to allow the desirable growth to take place. Geese must be removed from crops such as raspberries and tomatoes before the fruit ripens. Geese should also be removed from fields where fertilizers, pesticides or slug bait is being used until the danger is past.
Adult geese are not difficult to herd once you learn how to do it. Walking slowly behind them, veering to the right and raising your right arm will move them to the left and vice versa. A stick held in the hand will increase their responsiveness. Geese can be herded quite a distance, but this is not good for their legs unless they are accustomed to long walks.
The U.S. Forestry Service has developed a trailer into which the geese are herded and driven to distant fields. The USFS, as well as several other large operators, have also found it cost-effective to have field workers, who work throughout the day with the geese, herding them to areas where weeding is most critically needed. Weeder geese, to the contrary of rumors, are not mean, and workers will have no problem with them.
For some crops, such as nursery stock, adult geese can be over wintered and used for many years. Some operators do not find this to be cost-effective, especially since the young geese are more active weeders than the older ones. Since the adults will be ready to lay in the next spring, they can be sold locally as breeding stock or as a small farm stock.
In some geographic locations, adult geese are easily sold and in others, it is difficult. If fattened on corn for several weeks, they can be butchered for meat or sold for others to butcher. If butchered at an inspected plant, you might be able to sell them to gourmet restaurants for Thanksgiving and Christmas. A larger, white goose, such as an Embden, will be easier to sell at this point than a smaller White Chinese.
For more information on geese, we recommend The Book of Geese, written by Dave Holderread. Good luck and please keep us informed of your experiences that you would like to share with others.***