Back in the Spring of 2010, the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) in Miles City, Montana put out a press release announcing an online calculator that could tell producers how many more cattle they could raise if they were able to eliminate one or two widespread invasive plants. Matt Rinella, the rangeland ecologist who developed the tool, used it to estimate that ranchers in a 17-state region could raise 200,000 more cows a year and save tens of millions of dollars if leafy spurge were eliminated. Of course how to eliminate leafy spurge, or any other weed, is a problem we’ve yet to solve.
Can’t Beat ‘Em? Eat ‘Em!
In 2004, I developed a method to teach cows (or whatever livestock you raise) to eat weeds. So when I saw the ARS announcement I looked at Matt Rinella’s results from a completely different perspective. If cattle can eat leafy spurge (and I have actually trained cattle to eat this plant), that means that there is enough forage available right now for 200,000 more cattle. If we went straight to grazing leafy spurge instead of trying to eliminate it, we’d save even more than the tens of millions estimated by Rinella.
Why Do I Have To Teach My Livestock to Eat Weeds?
We know that animals learn what to eat from their mothers and their herd mates. As long as they have enough familiar food to eat, they just won’t try anything that hasn’t been eaten by someone they know. Check out this short video to see how strong this effect can be!
In addition, since we have always considered grass to be good and weeds to be bad, we’ve often managed our pastures in ways that allow our livestock to eat only the things they’re most familiar with.
Got Weeds? You’re in Luck!
There are two really great things about having weeds in your pastures. First, they are very resilient, as you’ve probably noticed already. They come back regardless of drought or weather, so if your animals are eating them, it means they’ll always have something in their pastures. Weeds are also very nutritious. After testing many varieties of weeds, I learned that as general rule, they have more protein than grass, and they are more digestible as well. If you’ve got some high protein weeds in your dry grass, you’re also in luck. The protein in the weeds helps a ruminant digest dry, fibrous plants and turn them into nutrients the body needs. (Yes, that’s a third benefit, but who’s counting?)
You Can Teach 25 Cows to Eat Weeds in 8 Hours Over 7 Days For Less Than $100
Here are the basics of the simple steps for teaching your livestock to eat weeds. I cover them in greater depth in this past On Pasture article. Below, you’ll also find a link to more resources to get you started.
1. Know Your Plant
All plants contain toxins, but there are not that many with toxins at such high doses that they will kill or harm your animals. Before you begin training, be sure that your plant is safe for your animals to eat. (See the list of safe plants included with this article, or contact me if your plant is not on this list.)
2. Choose Your Trainees
Any of the animals you have can learn to eat new foods. You can teach your replacement heifers, cow-calf pairs, and even your stockers. Training animals who will be staying at your place is a good idea because then they can teach their offspring and herd mates. Still, though stockers may be heading off your place at the end of the grazing season, training a small group of them as they’re getting used to your operation, and letting them train the rest of the herd, is a quick and easy thing to do.
You will be using your trainees’ natural competitiveness to encourage them to try new foods, and to make that work best you need a “herd.” After 10 years of training, I’ve learned that a herd starts at about 12 animals because that’s the point at which people can no longer keep track of them as individuals and treat them as special. I like training 25 to 50 because it’s efficient and no harder than working with 12.
3. Create a routine that makes the unfamiliar seem familiar.
All creatures are naturally afraid of trying new things. We want to get rid of that fear by showing them that when we give them new foods, it’s always going to be something good to eat. Here’s how we do that:
Every morning and afternoon for 4 days, I feed a nutritious but unfamiliar food. That means that I go down to the feed store and buy bags of grain that are high in protein (livestock candy!) focusing on foods that they haven’t tried in a variety of flavors, textures, sizes and shapes. I buy 8 different things, 1 fifty-pound bag per 25 animals. I pick a time to come every morning and every afternoon, and give them one of the new foods. I typically serve them in the large supplement tubs, 1 tub per every 3 trainees so that they’ll have to fight and grab to get the good stuff.
On the fifth day I skip the morning feeding. Then I cut weeds, serve them in the tubs as usual with a little bit of one of the foods they’ve tried earlier that week. I repeat this on day 6 and on day 7 I feed the weed plain. (Actually, sometimes I can see in the pasture that they’ve already started eating the weed on day 7, and if so, I stop.) Your cattle will start eating the weeds in pasture, and the more they practice, the better they’ll get at doing it. Then they’ll start to add other weeds on their own without any more work on your part. What a deal!
Let’s make Matt Rinella’s dream of 200,000 more cows a reality!
When I first figured out how easy it was to teach cows or any animal to eat weeds, it seemed such an obvious and easy solution to a problem affecting so many, that I thought farmers and ranchers would swoon with delight and run out and teach their animals. But I forgot how long it can take folks to change. It turns out that it takes 10 years of data before farmers and ranchers will consider something new, and then another 10 years after that until the practice is common. So I did lots of demonstrations and presentations, wrote a book, created videos, and even started On Pasture as a way of helping folks learn more about good grazing.
If you’re interested in taking advantage of weeds as the excellent forage they are, here’s a link to the books and resources I have that can help you get started. You’ll find:
• Links to On Pasture articles about training, and different weeds animals have learned to eat, and
• Links to my Youtube channel with videos showing the training in action.
My real hope is that some day everyone will just think it’s normal to teach their livestock to eat weeds and most won’t even know who I am. That’s probably not something I’ll see in my lifetime, but I’d love your help in getting there. 🙂