“Slow,” the sign admonishes motorists traveling along South Crest Road.
Tuesday afternoon, that was the only indication that the kudzu-covered banks of Missionary Ridge have some new residents: a herd of goats that city officials hope will eat the weedy vines that climb voraciously over every tree, power line and other available surface in the area.
City public works contracted with Maurice Beavers to place about 30 goats. Site preparations included furnishing water and power as well as completing the installation of a fence.
The goats are set to dine on kudzu on Missionary Ridge for the next two months.
If the experiment is successful, the goats will be brought back next April.
The city’s decision to see whether goats can clear the banks of kudzu, as the herbicides tried earlier could not, has been greeted with jokes by many city officials and area residents alike.
But Chattanooga is just the latest entity in the Southeast to use goats to try to control kudzu’s rampant growth.
In Mississippi, for example, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that goats can help control kudzu. Further, the researchers learned, if goats graze in a stand of kudzu long enough, they eventually eliminate that kudzu by eating it to the ground too often for the vine to survive.
And at Tuskegee University in Alabama, researchers and their goats have transformed fields covered with kudzu from wastelands into grazing lands.
Kudzu can grow more than 60 feet in a season, or up to a foot a day in early summer.
The vine was introduced to the United States in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, PA, where the Japanese government constructed a beautiful garden filled with plants from their country. American gardeners were entranced by the plant’s large leaves and sweet-smelling blooms, and began using the plant for ornamental purposes.
Then Charles and Lillie Pleas, owners of a plant nursery in Florida, began experimenting and discovered that animals would eat kudzu. Throughout the 1920s, they promoted its use for forage and their Glen Arden Nursery sold kudzu plants through the mail.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service promoted the use of kudzu as a ground cover that could help control erosion and the Civilian Conservation Corps. hired young men to plant the vine. A decade later, in the 1940s. farmers were paid up to eight dollars an acre as incentive to plant fields of kudzu.
What the early kudzu enthusiasts did not realize was that the vine grows much better in the southeastern United States than it does in its native habitat, partially because the insects that are its natural enemies were not imported here with it.
By the 1960s, portions of the South were covered with the seemingly endless vines; in 1972, the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally declared kudzu to be a weed.
Countless herbicides have been tried since then to control its rampant growth, with negligible success. In fact, Dr. James Miller of the U.S. Forest Service in Auburn, Alabama – who spent 18 years researching methods of killing kudzu – discovered that at least one herbicide actually makes it grow better.
Ironically, the key to controlling kudzu may grow out of the fact that it is a high-quality, high-protein forage, similar in quality to alfalfa hay, which goats like to eat.
Tuskegee researchers have discovered that goats’ enthusiast, constant grazing can eventually eradicate kudzu.
Consequently, goat farmers who want to use the vine to provide a continuing food source periodically must remove the animals from the fields, to allow the vines time to regrow.