Why Cows That Learn to Eat One Weed Will Choose to Eat Others

In 2004, I trained cows at Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site to eat Canada thistle, leafy spurge and spotted knapweed. Then, they started eating musk thistle as soon as I put them in pasture. When I trained 110 pairs to eat Canada thistle at the Jumping Horse Ranch near Ennis, Montana, they added musk thistle to their diet too. This pattern of learning to eat one thing and trying another continued when I taught cows in California to eat Italian thistle. In no time at all, they were eating bull thistle too. The cows I worked with in Colorado learned to eat two weeds - diffuse knapweed and dalmatian toadflax. But they didn't stop there. With no pressure at all, they went on to eat ragweed, field bindweed, musk thistle, and about 10 other weedy species. Why would they do this? The answers lie in animal behavior research, especially the research that tells us how animals choose what to eat. I was lucky to be at Utah State University in the late 1990s where some of the most renowned scientists in the field of animal behavior and learning were working. Dr. Fred Provenza, and his colleagues Carl Cheney, Beth Burritt, Juan Villalba, shared their discoveries with me. They inspired me to think, "Well, if all that is true, then I should be able to teach a cow to eat a weed" and their work was the basis for the training

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2 thoughts on “Why Cows That Learn to Eat One Weed Will Choose to Eat Others

  1. I trained cows and calves 8 1/2 years ago to eat Ironweed. The next year they were eating multiflora rose and autumn olive. They continue to expand their selection to Japanese Stilt Grass, Thistles, etc. I turned a group of yearling steers into a field that had Joint head grass last year. They had never seen it before and they did a very good job of eating it. Btw, Joint head grass and Japanese stilt grass both have a TDN in the high 60’s. One other interesting thing is the following summer after the initial training, the then yearling heifers (they were calves at time of training) taught a yearling Bull that was not even on the farm the training year to eat Autumn Olive.

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