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 email me here, and we talk about your situation
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.
Click here for a list of resources to help you turn your cows (and other livestock) into weed eaters.
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”.
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.
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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