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Let them eat weeds

Fred Provenza used to wonder as he watched cattle, sheep, goats, deer and elk graze: Why do the animals choose the foods they eat? Is it taste? Nutrition? Possibly they avoid the toxins they know? Could it be a combination of these factors?

After 35 years as a researcher at Utah State University, Provenza is convinced that grazers’ brains receive feedback from their bodies when they ingest foods. The animals remember that feedback, learning what to eat and what to avoid.

Taste, nutrition and secondary compounds deliver feedback, helping to develop dietary wisdom. Grazers watch others, and that cultural influence becomes a part of an animal’s dietary wisdom.

Marni Thompson, area resource conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Great Falls, Mont., office, and Kathy Voth, of Livestock for Landscapes, work with Provenza to apply its dietary theories.

The women help cattle producers teach cows to eat Canada thistle. “We can train cows to eat thistle in five days,” Thompson says, and she has Voth’s video to prove it.

Skepticism turns to curiosity

For producers who have been spending ever more cash on Canada thistle control for generations, skepticism soon turns to curiosity.

Thompson and Voth will not let them down. They have learned a few tips along the way. First, if cows are used to eating from tubs — for mineral or protein supplement, for example — use those tubs during training. The cattle know that something good is in those tubs.

Second, cattle need to see their “treat.” Producers who trained cattle to eat weeds in a green, irrigated grass pasture had more success when they poured grain on the ground than when they placed green alfalfa on the ground.

Third, cattle might come to tubs, eat a little and leave some. Have no fear, they will return to eat the rest.

Voth and Thompson put Provenza’s research to work for producers. Watch for new developments, too. Provenza is working with a Nevada rancher to teach cattle to eat sagebrush. Provenza hopes the sagebrush preference will be passed along through generations of calves.

Recipe for weed success

Cattle can be trained to eat Canada thistle in five days, according to Marni Thompson, area resource conservationist for NRCS in Great Falls, Mont. The key is to provide one familiar food while introducing one unfamiliar food. It is important that the unfamiliar food provides positive feedback to the animal.

Thompson learned from Kathy Voth, founder of Livestock for Landscapes. Voth’s recipe follows:

Plan to feed cattle in the morning and afternoon.

Signal the cattle with familiar feeding cues — feed tubs, a feed tractor or a truck horn, for example.

Feed the following:

Day 1, morning — alfalfa pellets

Day 1, evening — half alfalfa pellets and half COB (corn, oats, barley mix)

Day 2, morning — COB

Day 2, evening — rolled barley

Day 3, morning — beet pulp pellets

Day 3, evening — soy bean flake

Day 4, morning — wheat bran in range cubes

Day 4, evening — hay cubes

Day 5, morning — pulled thistles sprayed with molasses


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Testing the palate: Often cattle will avoid Canada thistle because they have never tried it. Once a cow eats a thistle and receives positive feedback, she will eat it again and again. Thistles are high in nutrients.

This article published in the August, 2012 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.