As most of our On Pasture readers know, I created a method for teaching cows and other livestock to eat weeds. I started in 2004 and for the last 11 years, I’ve been training animals and showing others how to train theirs. Along the way, I began to notice that the cows I trained to eat weeds, also began eating other things. In fact, I was pretty excited when I realized that “educated cows” were every bit as good at eating brush as the goats I’d worked with on brush management for 7 years. (Head over here to see the video of how excited I was, along with some great information on why brush is great forage for cows.)
After seeing what good brush managers cows can be, I started telling folks that I would prefer using them to goats to manage brush in some circumstances. Murray from Texas saw one of my quotes about this in Farm Show magazine and wrote me with a question:
“I presume you are working with Texas longhorns. They thrive on brush and will give you a very saleable product when you are done.”
I wrote Murray back. I told him I had worked with some longhorns, but most of the cows I’ve trained are Angus, Angus-cross, and some herefords. What I’ve found after a decade of doing this, is that while some individuals are better than others at eating weeds and brush, it has not been breed specific. In fact, one of the longhorns in my first group of weed trainees was the worst weed- and brush-eater of the group.
The idea that breed doesn’t matter when it comes to what an animal eats is an unusual concept for many of us so maybe thinking of it this way will help: People in the frozen north eat walrus blubber, and insects are tasty to folks raised in some places. I don’t eat any of those things, but it’s not because I can’t. It’s because I come from a different culture where I’ve learned to eat different things.
Murray wrote back again to say that pastures grazed by Angus and Herefords tended to become overgrown with brush and that he’d never had to teach a Longhorn to eat brush, but that they just did what came naturally. He’s right. His Longhorns are eating what generations of his longhorns have eaten. But that doesn’t make them better than other cattle. They just have different experiences. Or better put: They have a different culture.
The reason for the difference is that animals eat what their moms ate, as shown in this video:
If you have a slow connection what the video shows is two different groups of ewes and their young. The first group of ewes only eat Caragena, and when their lambs are put into the pen and given a choice between Caragena and Russian Olive, they choose Caragena. The second group of ewes only eats Russian Olive, and their lambs choose that when they are put in the pen by themselves. When the two groups of lambs are put in the pen together with the two plants, they separate into their groups according to what their moms ate. Researchers have found that these kinds of preferences passed from mom to offspring are very long lasting, and even when a young animal learns to eat new things, it will always show a preference for the foods it learned to eat from its Mom.
Here Are Some Examples of Different Animal Cultures:
I worked with a herd of Angus crosses in Boulder County, Colorado. From the first time I saw them they ate field bindweed, and they ate LOTS of it. I took a sample for analysis to a lab in Greeley, Colorado. A farmer I met there was amazed that cows could be trained to eat weeds, and said, “Boy, if you could get them to eat field bindweed, that would be amazing.” So I told her that I knew they could learn because I had cows who ate it without any training at all.
A rancher in Colorado moved his herd from the arid rangelands in Colorado to a Nebraska ranch with lush green pastures. The cattle didn’t do well at all in spite of having so much forage. His herd was looking for the familiar plants of home, and they didn’t know what to do in their new pastures. Eventually the rancher sold them all and replaced them with cattle familiar with the area.
On Pasture author Darrell Emmick has lots of experience transitioning confinement dairies to pasture-based dairies. He says that the first time a herd of dairy cows gets sent to pasture it can be a scary experience for the people and the cow. Animals raised in a barn don’t recognize pasture as food, and they run around the pasture and then head back to the barn. Their milk production can drop until they figure out that what they’re tromping around on is actually edible.
I had a similar experience with goats raised in confinement as part of a research project at Utah State University. They were given to me to add to my brush management herd and at first they lost a lot of weight because they didn’t know what to eat outdoors. I watched as they stuck their noses up next to my brush-eating herd, checking out what they were eating, until they finally learned that grazing was good.
Why Do You Care About Animal Culture?
You can use this information when you’re looking at bringing new livestock onto your place. Do they come from a place that has similar forage? Or will they need to learn something new? If they need to learn something new, what can you do to make that transition as easy and stress-free as possible? Fencing them in with close contact to the rest of your herd might help. I found it helpful to feed my goats what they were accustomed to while at the same time introducing them to a few of the foods they would be eating in pasture. And if you really want to go crazy and change your herd’s culture, head over here for tips on how to teach animals to eat new things.
Editors Note: Kathy says thanks to Beth Burritt for all her work on getting the word out about how animals choose what to eat.