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When Livestock Eat Weeds You Have 43% More Forage*

By   /  June 19, 2017  /  12 Comments

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It’s that time of year when I remind you that you can teach your ruminant livestock to eat your weeds so that you have as much as 43% more forage, and you don’t have to worry about herbicide.

Training a group of 50 animals to eat weeds takes just 8 hours spread over 7 days at a cost of about $250. Trained animals teach their offspring and herd mates, they remember the new foods for the rest of their lives, and they even add more weeds to their diet all on their own. The best part? Weeds are almost always equal to or better than alfalfa in nutritional value. That’s why one herd I followed for 6 years began walking over the grass in their pastures to choose the weeds instead.

I’ve been training animals and telling farmers and ranchers how to do this since 2004. It turns out that the hardest part of the process is getting farmers and ranchers to try it. So today, I’m going to turn it over to Joe Morris of San Juan Bautista, California to talk about how it worked for him.

It Was Easy! You Can Do It!

That’s what Joe said about teaching cows to eat weeds a few years ago. Joe attended one of my presentations in 2007.  He took good notes and later that spring he taught his cows to eat milk thistle.  In this 2:40 video he describes his training experience.

Joe noticed that his trainees didn’t stop at eating just the target weed. “The bonus was that they ate not only the milk thistle in the pasture, but they also ate Italian thistle in the pasture, and black mustard.  And they ate it with gusto,” he said.

Not everyone takes notes as well as Joe did. So I’ve tried to make it easier for you to get started. Head over to this page with links to all the articles that I’ve written on this for On Pasture, and info on how you can get help from me for next to nothing. There are even links to my youtube channel so that you can watch videos of cows learning. They’re short, sweet and guaranteed to be entertaining.

Here’s What Your Cows Can Eat

Just click on the picture below to download the list.

If you don’t see your plant on this list, drop me an email and I’ll check it out for you. If you decide to train, and you’re not sure that things are going right or you have questions, drop me an email. I’ve trained over 1,000 cows, 38 bison, several flocks of sheep and some goats how to eat weeds so I can solve most of your training problems by just talking to you about what’s going on.

Really, I’m serious! Get in touch with me. What good is a great invention if no one ever takes advantage of it? I want you to be successful and I want your cows to be successful.

 Go forth and eat weeds!

* Wondering about that 43% more forage? Economist John Morley looked at the common infestation rate he determined that having weed-eating cows could increase acreage available for grazing by as much as 43%.  Read more here.

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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.

12 Comments

  1. Kathy Voth says:

    Grant in British Columbia asked about biennial burdock. Here’s what I told him:

    This is a very edible plant, Grant. I would definitely teach cows to eat it. In Japan, the burdock root is considered food. If you get hungry, I have a recipe for sauteing the root and then “chewing it angrily.” Let me know if I should find it and send it to you. 🙂

    Kathy

  2. Kathy Voth says:

    Another reader asked: “Can cows safely eat Verbesina occidentalis, or Verbesina alternifolia? Common names are stickweed, wing-stem, yellow crownbeard, yellow ironweed.”

    I recently looked this up for another person. Here’s my answer:

    There is no information that this plant causes problems. There is another species, V. enceloides, that is native to the U.S. and has invaded Australia. In Australia it can cause sheep poisoning and death. But it hasn’t caused similar problems here.

    All that said, every where I looked I read that animals would not eat it. Here’s one quote from a research project: “Goats did not graze nimble will, wild strawberry or yellow-crownbeard, regardless of stocking pressure.” I know that even goats have to learn some new foods, but they’ll usually try some things under pressure. So right now I’m not sure that I would ask them to try it.

    When I run into a plant like this, what I usually do is teach them to eat something else that I know is palatable but that they’re not already eating. My favorite for this is Canada thistle or some other thistle. Once they’re eating one new weed well, they will go around the pasture and begin adding other plants as well. I make sure they have plenty of variety in their pastures, and then they can safely try a little of everything and find out if it’s safe or not.

    I’ll do a little more looking and if I find out something more, I’ll let you know.

  3. Kathy Voth says:

    A reader in New Hampshire asked about Bracken Fern. This weed is toxic. Do not train your livestock to eat it. She asked for other possible control methods. I’ll look into it more and get back to you all.

  4. Kathy Voth says:

    I’ve gotten some questions by email so I’m going to share them here along with my answers to help everyone out.

    Q: I have read part of your article on training cows to eat weeds and have a question on a couple plants. Is Clasping Pepperweed safe for them to eat? Also do you think you can train them to eat foxtail barley grass? If so do you think it’s safe enough for them to eat if it is in early or just headed stage. Another thought is could we spray molasses on patches of this in the pasture and get them to eat it in an intensive grazing operation instead of having to clip it and put it in tubs. Let me know your thoughts!

    A: Yes, this is a safe weed for cattle to eat. No, don’t spray patches. It doesn’t work without spraying lots of times over and over.

    The training takes only 8 hours spread over 7 days. The benefit is that you create animals who are open minded about foods and will go on to try everything else in your pasture. That means you don’t have to train them to eat more than one weed. If they aren’t eating something you want them to eat, you just bring in the training tubs, cut a few of the weeds and drop them in the tubs and leave. They know from training that tubs mean good food, so they’ll try the new weed and then eat it in pasture.

    Molasses is not a silver bullet. Most animals aren’t familiar with molasses and they don’t associate it with something tasty the way we do. When I tested animals who had gone through the training process against animals who had not, the trained animals eat 80 ounces of weeds coated in molasses compared to just 3 ounces by the animals who had not been trained.

    I hope this helps.

  5. John Marble says:

    In the Pacific Northwest we have a non-native weed called tansy ragwort that is fairly poisonous. Populations seem to ebb and flow; this year is horrible. Cattle avoid it if they can. Poor grazing management exacerbates the population, but in some years there is a huge spike in weed population even on well-managed pastures. There are some introduced biological controls that are only mildly effective.

    So, what do we do with weeds that we don’t want livestock to eat?

    • Kathy Voth says:

      The plants that livestock can’t eat are probably the biggest problem. Of course we have to manage them so that they’re not in danger, meaning that there’s plenty of other forage available for them to eat. But let me do some looking. I know that tansy ragwort is not edible, but I might be able to find out more about what prevents the plant from growing. I’ll get back to you!

  6. Oogie McGuire says:

    I just sent an e-mail We have yellow nutsedge infestation. We’ve managed to control the water that caused the problem but it’s still growing because we are on irrigated pasture. I did a nutritional analysis on it, not too bad a feed, high in neutral fiber detergent but also high protein. Problem now is how to get the sheep to eat it, any suggestions?

    Related I’d like to see more work on training sheep to eat weeds. They can work in smaller pastures and places cattle would not be a good fit and that’s the livestock we have available.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      The training method works for all creatures. I focus on cows when I write because those are the animals that folks think won’t eat these things. Your problem with nutsedge is that it’s not as nutritious as other foods. You can teach your sheep to eat it, and if you teach young ones, they will think that’s a normal food to eat. But it will never be a favorite.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hi again, Oogie,

      I just remembered that we ran a story on sheep eating bedstraw so you can see the training process with sheep. http://onpasture.com/2013/03/19/bedstraw/

      • Oogie McGuire says:

        Thanks for that video. I’m trying to think how to adapt to our situation. We don’t feed any grains because we get a premium for our forage finished meats. So I can’t use sweet feed to teach them. I’ve tried feeding alfalfa pellets before and our sheep won’t eat them. I even pulled one ewe out of the grassfed program and tried to feed her sweet feed and she would eat the oat and barley but lick the molasses off the corn and spit it out. I have used mineral to get them to try stuff and that sometimes works but not always. Our mineral has dried molasses in it and we use that to control how much mineral they eat, usually adding a lot since they don’t particularly like the mineral and our forages and water have a lot of salt in them. I’m thinking molasses spraying might actually be one of our better options.

    • Gene Schriefer says:

      Nutsedge loves managed grazing, hates hard, close grazing. I never saw it here until I divided everything up and it took over the wet bottom ground. In early spring as it emerges, I graze the flock or herd on it early and often, it’s tender and tasty up to 5-6″, keeping it knocked back early allows grasses/legumes/forbes to colonize around the base of the plant. not perfect, but it works ok.

      • Oogie McGuire says:

        Thanks for that info. It Figures, the nutsedge is at the top of the pasture, where the grasses are a lot slower to get started so our intensive grazing usually starts on the bottom sections. Also our lambing pastures are down near the house and that is where the largest portion of the flock is early in the spring. It’s too late now to do it but I’ll see about putting yearlings up there early to graze it (we don’t breed lambs so yearling are dry.)

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