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Palatability Redefined


CowLicksLipsBased on three decades of research on how animals choose what to eat, we now know that palatability isn’t determined by taste.  Instead, we’ve learned that nutrients and toxins, in combination with an animals physical requirements make something taste good or bad.  What this means for livestock producers is that anything that meets an animals needs could be considered forage, including the pasture and range weeds that we’ve been battling for centuries.  This important discovery was brought to us by Dr. Fred Provenza, professor emeritus at Utah State University, and his colleagues.  Here’s how it works:


Nutrients tend to increase palatability, and toxins tend to decrease it. All plants have toxins that change over the course of the growing season, so we are constantly adjusting what we eat and mixing foods to prevent bad feedback.

The best way to see this working is to let animals themselves show you. This video shows how feedback from nutrients, or the lack of good feedback affect how two groups of sheep see straw as a food.  The group that has good experience with nutritional feedback from straw will eat it, while the other group won’t.

This video shows what happens when animals encounter toxins in foods.  They avoid that food or reduce the amount they eat depending on the dose they experience.  This is important because all foods contain some kind of toxin, so creatures need to be able to learn from nutritional feedback which foods to avoid, or how much of each one to eat.

In future articles we’ll continue sharing information on palatability, how animals choose what to eat, and how you can use this information to make good use of the forages in your pastures.

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Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.