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Overcoming Our Brush Prejudice

By   /  December 16, 2013  /  Comments Off on Overcoming Our Brush Prejudice

From 1997 – 2002 I ran a goat herd for brush management as part of a research project on creating firebreaks through goat grazing. After I saw that cows could do every bit as well on brush as my goats ever did, I began to rethink our relationship with brush in pasture, and why we ought to work with our cows to manage it.

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Prejudice: an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason. – Dictionary.com

Grassist: a person with a prejudiced belief that, for raising cows, grass is superior to all other vegetation. – Kathy Voth

I have a confession to make.When I started my livestock career I had a strong prejudice against brush. For a time I worked diligently to develop simple techniques for creating fuel breaks in it or for eradicating it from pastures. And of course I used goats because, like everyone else, I was taught that “Goats are browsers and cows are grazers.”

Cow browsing on Coyote bush in Nicasio, California

Cow browsing on Coyote bush in Nicasio, California

But goats aren’t for everybody, and when I couldn’t convince western ranchers to use goats for weed control, I decided to teach the cows to eat them instead. The cows showed me they could eat weeds with just a little bit of training, and then one day in Marin, California at the Nicasio Native Grass Ranch the cows showed me something else. They showed me that they could do every bit as good a job on brush clearing as my goats ever did.

Most of the cows I’ve trained to eat weeds have become pretty open-minded about trying a little bit of everything in pasture. These particular cows were trained to eat distaff and Italian thistle, and they decided on their own to eat coyote bush, a species known to invade grasslands in the area. I videoed the cows grazing the bushes off at head-level, breaking large branches off with their heavy bodies in an effort to get at the best parts. It looked just like it would have had my herd of goats visited for the day. As my rancher, Peggy Rathmann said,“This is forage!”

This is a photo courtesy of "Ohio Dave" on a Cattle Today Forum showing one of his cows eating multiflora rose.

This is a photo courtesy of “Ohio Dave” on a Cattle Today Forum showing one of his cows eating multiflora rose.

When things you see with your own eyes are contrary to what you’ve been taught, it’s time to take another look. So I’ve looked into cows as “browsers” or as animals that at least include brushy species in their diets. I have pictures of my trainees eating wild rose, willow, ash, and squaw bush. I worked with West Virginia and New York farmers to help them teach their cattle to eat multiflora rose. (See an article on training cows to eat this plant here.)  A longhorn producer sent me pictures of his cattle eating blackberry bushes, and a Utah State researcher sent me a picture of a cow eating mesquite in Mexico.  If one cow can do it, every cow can, and if yours aren’t, all they need is a little of the training I use to teach cows to eat weeds.

Science tells us that if an animal eats something, it is likely nutritious or at least meeting some individual need. So I looked into the nutritional value of brush species. It seems they can run from 8 to 24% protein. Winged elm runs from 7 to 14% protein, and a 1963 study showed that it browsed heavily by cattle, particularly when it is within easy grazing reach.  Oak brush and Russian olive average about 14% protein, multiflora rose runs from 10.5 to 12.8% and the berry species run from 15.5 to 21.1%. True, oak brush contains tannins which can harm cattle, but only if it makes up over 70% of their diet. So, make sure your animals have variety and they’ll be fine.  (Acorns are another matter, so continue to manage your animals so that they don’t have access to them.)

This photo is courtesy of Savanna Gardens.  When they put their herd in a woody pasture, they expected the cattle to eat the grass first.  In their blog they write "After a few days, I couldn't tell they'd even touched one blade of grass.  Instead, they went through and ate basswood and grape leaves first!  I never realized how much cows love grape leaves until witnessing them taking out entire swaths of grape before touching the surrounding grass.

This photo is courtesy of Savanna Gardens. When they put their herd in a woody pasture, they expected the cattle to eat the grass first. In their blog they write “After a few days, I couldn’t tell they’d even touched one blade of grass. Instead, they went through and ate basswood and grape leaves first! I never realized how much cows love grape leaves until witnessing them taking out entire swaths of grape before touching the surrounding grass.

So, brush is nutritious, and cattle eat it. Here’s some more good news. Brush species are almost a miracle forage. They leaf out and reproduce even during drought, put up shoots, and drop millions of seeds that can stay viable for 20 years or more, and many respond to fire and mowing by growing even faster. You might have thought those were problems before, because you were trying to grow pasture for your cattle and thought you had to battle brush. But maybe now you might look at it a little differently. Besides, brush is good for wildlife and a Texas study found that one acre of “thicket” could offset the carbon produced by a car driving 26,000 miles in a year, giving us a couple more reasons to consider making it a part of our overall pasture plan.

If I haven’t convinced you that brush is good, you can still use your cattle to clear your pastures. A 2003 Wisconsin experiment found that cattle grazing could be used to “open up” and restore overgrown oak savannah. They used 6 cow calf pairs in June, July and August in two treatments: 1) one day per acre per month, and 2) three days per acre per month. The cattle spent 34% of their time grazing brush, 35% grazing forbs, and 29% grazing grass. A photo comparison of the control pasture and a grazed pasture showed that the brush layer had been practically eliminated after the second year. They found that using 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of cattle per acre provided for reasonable weight gain and shrub removal. (I’ll share more on this project in future issues.)

We all have prejudices. But often they don’t serve us very well. If you’re doing a lot of work to save your farm from brush and replace it with grass so your cows can eat it, maybe you could look at it from another perspective. We can make lemonade out of lemons, why not pasture out of brush? After all, the definition of pasture is: “Grass or other vegetation eaten as food by grazing animals.”

Should we focus more on “other vegetation?” It’s just a thought.

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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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