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 again, we decided we needed a different plan. We would train the herd to follow us, while training them to eat the weeds at the same time. Then we’d be able to lead them into the pen instead of trying to herd them.
The basic training process involves feeding cows “treats” in tubs morning and afternoon for 4 days. These treats are an assortment of different feeds in 50 lb bags that I pick up at the local feed store or coop. I choose 8 different, high protein feeds, focusing on things that the cows have never seen before, that are high in protein, and are different sizes, shapes, textures, smells and tastes. By the second day, the trainees expect that I’m bringing them a great snack whenever they see me with tubs, and they come running. On the fifth day, when I switch the feeds for weeds, they try them because everything else I put in the tub looked strange but turned out to be tasty.
This 2:40 minute video shows how we used our truck horn and the tasty treats in tubs to teach the cows to come from anywhere in the pasture to our truck and feeding station. We started by feeding them near the truck and honking the horn while they ate. Then we moved to different locations in the pasture for each feeding, even feeding in locations where they wouldn’t be able to see us right away, but would come to the horn honking. In the end, they all learned to eat Dalmatian toadflax, and when it came time to move into the small electric-fenced area, they followed us in without any problem at all.
So – How Could This Work For You?
Let’s say your weeds are in the large pastures your livestock will move to in the spring, so you can’t train them at home. And once they’re on pasture, the area is so large that tracking a herd down with your feed tubs and treats just isn’t feasible. How about using my training technique to teach your trainees to come to you? While they’re at the home place, you can teach them that tubs mean good food, and that your truck and horn (or any vehicle and a loud sound of your choice) means “COME AND GET IT!”
The day you move your cattle to pasture, refresh their memories by feeding them a treat out of tubs near the gate where you’re leaving them. Be sure to use the same vehicle and the same horn/sound as you feed them to drive home the lesson. Then in the next couple days, finish up the training in pasture, by calling the cows to where you are with the tubs, and feeding them weeds in the tubs for 2 to 3 days.
I’ve had to make this a kind of generic solution, so it may not precisely fit your needs or situation. If that’s the case, do leave me a message in the comments below with specifics that you need to have solved and I’ll do my best to give you a solution. (You can also email me here, and we can work together directly.)
One Last Benefit of This Training
I worked with cattle from this same ranchers herd for four years after this training. I didn’t always get my original trainees, but always had at least 20 of the original 50. For all four years they remembered my truck, the sound of my horn, and that tubs meant tasty treats. So when I was all alone in a 500-acre pasture and needed them to move to a new area, I used these tools to move them easily. I’d park my truck near where I wanted them, and then walk to where they could see me. I’d shake a tub, and hit the panic button on my truck’s key fob to make the horn honk. My trainees would lift their heads, and walk to me, bringing the rest of the herd along. It’s the easiest herding I’ve ever done.