That was the conclusion of a study done in 1844 as reported in the “Book of the Farm”. Today, many people would laugh at the idea of steaming potatoes, turnips and beans and seasoning it with salt in order to get a few more pounds of gain out of our animals, and I’m not recommending that we go there. I simply bring it up to give you an idea of what we used to think cows eat in comparison to what we think they eat today. It points out how flexible our livestock and their diets can be, and also, how inflexible we can be when we think about what they can eat.
Today we call ourselves “grass farmers” and we focus on eliminating weeds so that our livestock, particularly our cattle, have what we consider to be the best diet for them. But it turns out that grass isn’t necessarily best for putting weight on our cattle, and many plants we call weeds can actually provide more nutrition and faster weight gain. Our ideas of what cows eat are actually making our lives harder, not better.
Ever since I began training cows to eat weeds, I’ve watched them add all kinds of new plants to their diets. In 2009 I watched my Boulder County, Colorado trainees avoid grass and choose to graze in what we would consider the worst parts of their 500 acre pasture. Their manure told me they were choosing a very high protein diet, so I ran analysis on the plants they were choosing. Their diet of ragweed, Russian, Canada and Musk thistle, field bindweed, pigweed, and others, ranged from 11 to 21% protein. Based on what we know about protein and weight gain, my trainees were choosing a diet that would put on from between 2.2 to 3 pounds of gain a day.
They would have lost weight had they chosen to eat just grass. During mid-July, the grasses available in pasture were 2 to 3% protein, much less than the 8% a cow needs just to maintain herself. At that time of year, no matter how much grass I put in front of my herd, they wouldn’t be able to gain weight.
Of course this was a very arid place, with average annual precipitation of just 15 inches. Less arid places will definitely have better grass with better protein values. For example, according to West Virginia University Extension, fescues, orchard grass and clover were the number one species in 95% of West Virginia pastures and only about 5 to 10% of the grass pastures are lacking enough protein to meet animal requirements (Pasture Forage Quality in West Virginia, December 2003). But these farmers are also struggling with “weed invasions.” No matter where I present about cows eating weeds, producers gave me a list of weeds they are battling.
My suggestion to them, and to everyone else, is that we should expand our minds, and the minds of our cattle, and simply consider them forage. By thinking of weeds as forage, we can reduce labor and materials costs, increase weight gain for our cattle, and add more money to our wallets. This spring I’m trying to make that more doable for everyone, especially On Pasture readers. I’ve reduced the price on my book, “Cows Eat Weeds” and I’ll throw in a “Training Recipe” for just $15. That way you’ll have the background you need in how it all works plus step by step instructions for how to train your livestock in just 8 hours spread over 7 days. And if the $50 price tag is too much, I’ve provided links to all the articles we’ve published at On Pasture so that if you want, you can figure out how to do it all on your own. Just click on over here to get all the details.
P.S. I’m really trying to make it easy and affordable for you to take advantage of everything you’re growing in your pasture. If you have suggestions of what I need to do to get you going, let me know. I’ve been trying to show people how easy this is for 11 years now, and I’d like to see the concept FINALLY take off so that I can move on to something else.