When I was in Grapevine, Texas last week, lots of folks asked me if they could use my training technique to teach cows to eat Woolly Croton. Woolly Croton (Croton capitatus) is also known as goat weed or dove weed, because dove, quail and turkeys love the seeds it produces. That means that hunters appreciate having this native, warm-season annual in pastures where they hope to hunt. But for folks raising livestock, it can be problematic. It can rapidly take over pastures that have been overgrazed or when other forages are stressed due to drought. Since there’s been a lot of drought recently, particularly in Texas, lots of graziers are trying to figure out what to do about the increasing populations of this plant.
There are a variety of websites that list this plant as poisonous to livestock. However, after looking at the literature available I’ve found nothing to support these claims. But while it may not be poisonous, Croton species do contain chemicals (toxins) that can cause issues. For example people once used the oils distilled from an Old World species of this plant, Croton tiglium, as a laxative. That use has since been discontinued because the oil was very potent and as little as 20 drops could be lethal. According to “Poisonous Plants of North America” (Burrows and Tyrl), crotons in North America contain similar chemicals, and these can cause stomach irritation and/or diarrhea.
Even that doesn’t make it inedible. Research has demonstrated that animals eat plants that are nutritious and simply reduce the amount they eat in response to the chemicals they contain. Additional research shows us that toxins and nutrients can offset the effects of some toxins and that if animals have a variety of forages to choose from they can mix a safe diet. I’ve seen this at work with cows I trained to eat weeds in Boulder, Colorado. After learning to eat late-season diffuse knapweed and dalmatian toadflax, they went on to eat a little of everything in their pasture, including plains milkweed (Asclepias pumila). According to Anthony Knight, author of A Guide to Plant Poisonings of Animals in North America this little flower has a cardiac glycoside which can harm animals if they eat too much. But since my herd had so much to choose from, they ate only a little of this plant and suffered no negative consequences.
All this background information is what I gave Texas rancher interested in teaching his cows to eat Woolly Croton. When I ran into him at the Conference last week he said he had used my training process to teach his cattle to eat it. He had found that they would eat it when they were in management-intensive grazing situations, but when they were allowed to graze at low stock densities, they ate much less of the plant. This tells us that it is possible for our cattle to eat it, but it’s not their favorite thing, indicating to me that we need to be sure they have variety in order to be most successful.
Here’s What I Would Do
There are two possibilities for getting cattle to eat this plant. First, if I had another weedy plant in the pasture, I might teach them to eat that one first and then let them try the Woolly Croton on their own. (Head over here for information about the training process.) For example, if I had Canada thistle, or any other thistle for that matter, I’d teach the cattle to eat that because thistles are very nutritious and cows learn to eat them very easily. After learning to eat one weed, cattle begin to look at the plants in their pasture differently, and they always go on to add other plants as well. So I’d watch to see if they decided to add Woolly Croton. I’d visit the pasture and look at the Woolly Croton plants for evidence of being bitten off, or that they were missing parts of leaves, etc. If they didn’t go on to try it, I would bring out the training tubs, place them near the Woolly Croton, cut a few and put them in the tubs to show the cattle that the plant is “good food.” Typically when I do this, the cattle begin adding the new weed to their diet quite quickly.
The second possibility is to train cattle to eat Woolly Croton itself. If you choose to do this, be sure that your cattle are in a pasture with plenty of variety and that they’re getting plenty to eat. Then, as you start to feed them the Woolly Croton, pay attention to how much they eat, and watch for diarrhea. I think that nothing will happen because they will be eating such a small amount. Pay attention to their health as they go on to graze it in pasture, always making sure they have plenty of variety. Typically, the amount of weedy plants animals eat is small at first, but grows over time. So just be patient and watch.
Email For Help and Share Your Observations
If you’re in the process of training and you have questions, email me and I’ll gladly answer. If you get a forage analysis of the plant, do share it with us all, and any observations you have about what your livestock are doing in pasture and how they are grazing this plant. I’ll post answers to the questions and share your observations with the whole On Pasture community so we can learn and grow together. With everyone pitching in, I’m sure we can learn to manage this plant for the benefit of everyone. 🙂