Training Cows to Eat Weeds – Even in Very Large Pastures

It's that time of year again when those special forbs start poking their heads up in your grassy pastures. That means it's also the time of year when I remind you, "Those are not weeds. That is good forage!" And then I remind you that it only takes 8 hours spread over 7 days to teach your cows to eat them. Will this be the year you try it out? One of the sticking points preventing some ranchers from training their livestock to eat weeds is that by the time the weeds are up, they also need to move their cattle to pasture to take advantage of rapid grass growth. How do you work with cattle that may be spread over really large pastures? That's a scenario that I faced in 2009 when I was supposed to train a herd of 50 cow calf pairs grazing on a 500-acre pasture in Boulder County, Colorado. The plan was to herd trainees into a small single-wire electric fenced area inside the larger pasture, teach them to eat Dalmatian toadflax, and then monitor how much they ate of the weed. The problem was that there were two bulls with the herd, and my assistant and I were having a hard moving them into the enclosure where we'd hoped to train them. We couldn't get the bulls to walk through the gate. They walked through the fence instead. After a couple days of building fence, herding cows, watching the bulls rip the fence down, and then putting it back up

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3 thoughts on “Training Cows to Eat Weeds – Even in Very Large Pastures

  1. I force my cattle to eat weeds by allowing overgrazing. I have a small herd of 20 that I put on a half acre or so a day depending on the amount of forage. It doesn’t take long for the cattle to switch from choosing “ice cream” plants to eating almost everything. I spot spray for things like creeping buttercup. They CAN be taught to eat “weeds”.

    1. Hi Charles,
      This can work on a small scale or limited time frame, but I tend not to recommend it for a few reasons. First, overgrazing can be hard for plants to recover from and leave you with more problems than you started with. Weeds tend to like overgrazed areas and can come back stronger. But we may be thinking of different kinds of “overgrazing.” Another reason I don’t do this is the impact on animals. I’ve watched stock lose a lot of weight when forced to eat things they’re not familiar with, and that’s generally not a goal farmers and ranchers have. Another reason is that animals could have bad feedback from toxins in plants. When an animal is “starving” it is less able to process some toxins and it may decide not to eat that plant again thanks to negative feedback. Or it might not have enough variety to mix with a plant with a toxin so it won’t have the nutrients necessary to offset effects of toxins. For that reason in particular, I tend to make sure that livestock have plenty variety to choose from in pasture so that they can safely mix a variety of foods and maintain weight and health.
      Just some thoughts.

      1. This is temporary because we are getting good growth from our ryegrass. If I let them eat down to 3-5″ like I normally do they will pick the ryegrass and leave everything else. I move them daily and they aren’t touching the spreading buttercup so I feel like I’m within the safety threshold. I do BCS regularly as well as analyzing cow patties. Thanks for the feedback. I’ll watch them closely.

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