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Mother Knows Best – Why Your Livestock Do What They Do

By   /  December 16, 2013  /  Comments Off on Mother Knows Best – Why Your Livestock Do What They Do

We are used to thinking about forage type, nutrition and quantity as we raise our animals, but we overlook what animals might be learning from Mom and herd mates. Since what a young animal learns about food has life-long consequences, knowing more about this process can help us be more successful managers.

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A young animal learns what kind of things it should eat and do from its mother and its herd or “social group.”  This explains how animals of the same species can survive in extremely different environments. For example, a calf reared in the sage-covered deserts of southern Utah and one raised on grass in the bayous of Lousiana have completely different diets and habits.

We all know that young animals learn from their mothers, but we may not realize how important, strong, and long-lasting her influence is. For young creatures, paying attention to mother is crucial for learning where and where not to go and what and what not to eat. Through interactions with mother, young animals learn about the whereabouts of water, shade, cover, and the kinds and locations of nutritious and toxic foods.  Here’s a little demonstration done at Utah State University by the BEHAVE group that shows how strong that influence is. You’ll see that when a mother avoids harmful foods and selects nutritious alternatives, her offspring will do the same.

Here’s the link for tablet readers.

lambswheatgraphAs offspring begin to forage, they learn quickly to eat foods mother eats, and they remember those foods for years. As an example of this here’s a little test done by scientists.  The graph at the right shows the results of three different groups of lambs offered wheat at 3 months and then again when they were 3 years old.  At three months old, the first group did not see wheat, the second group was given wheat in a pen alone, and ate very little.  The last pink bar shows how much wheat three month old lambs ate when they were with their mothers who already knew wheat was a tasty food.  The white bars show how much each group ate 3 years later.  The difference is huge for animals who had first seen wheat with them moms.

Herd Influence

Other animals, young and old, can also influence what other members of the herd eat. When mother is not available, lambs can learn from other older ewes. For example, lambs fed barley with their mothers ate 40% more than lambs fed barley with an adult female from the flock. However, eating barley with any ewe dramatically improved how much lambs ate compared to lambs fed barley all by themselves.

While goats started with very different diets, the diets of subsequent generations became more and more similar.

While goats started with very different diets, the diets of subsequent generations became more and more similar.

As we saw in the video, animals can learn to eat new foods when it sees other animals eating foods it is unfamiliar with. As an example, researchers put 4 groups of goats reared on 4 different farms on one pasture with a variety of plants. Goats from the same farm ate similar plants, but each farm’s goats ate a different selection of plants. The food preferences of the mothers did not change over the next four years. However, as the offspring interacted, they began to eat more similar diets. During the four year life of the study, researchers found that the diets of offspring became more and more similar. In addition, although kids selected different diets than their mothers, it was still possible to track which kid’s mother came from which farm based on a noticeable preference for specific plants.

What Can You Do With This Information?

If you’re planning to finish weaned calves at a feedlot, get them ready for a smooth transition to what they’ll be eating there.  Let them try a new food, with their mothers, or with other older animals so that when they arrive at their new location, they’ll be able to look in the new feed trough and say “Hey, I’ve seen that before.  It’s food!”

Cow and CalfIf you’re bringing new, young animals to your place, put them with older animals who know the ropes and what is and isn’t food.  Young animals will suffer from less stress and begin growing more quickly when they have good guides to get them started.

Even old cows can learn from their herd mates.  When I’m working on teaching cows to eat weeds, I don’t want to spend the time or money it would take to teach every single cow in large herds.  So I choose a few (12 – 50) train them, and then let them teach their herd mates and their offspring.

Any time you purchase new animals, pay attention to the environment they’re coming from and how it compares to your own.  You might think that a Colorado cow heading to Arkansas would thank her lucky stars that there’s so much more green grass around.  But the reality is that she’s going to take some time to adjust, and may never do as well as an animal you can purchase from a similar location.

Some of what your animal does is a result of physiology, and some of it is culture.  If you keep this in mind and help with transitions, things will be a little easier for you and your livestock.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

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