One of the challenges your livestock face on a daily basis is picking out something safe to eat without the benefit of food safety labels, or any labels at all for that matter. They’ve solved this dilemma by eating what those around them eat. But when we haul them to a pasture with forages they’ve never seen before, or drop them off at the feedlot to fatten up by eating a strange looking total mixed ration out of strange troughs, things can get a little dicey. In pasture, they may choose the wrong forages, or just quit eating for awhile until they get things figured out. And in feedlots, well we’ve all heard of cattle losing weight or getting sick when they first arrive at the feed yard.
When it comes to choosing what to eat, Instinct doesn’t apply.
So why don’t animals just use “instinct” to make good food choices? The answer is that though it’s instinctual to WANT to eat, none of us is born with the knowledge of WHAT to eat. We learn from our mothers, peers, and others what to eat and what to avoid, and we only experiment with other foods when we absolutely have to. When all the foods we see are unfamiliar, another instinct kicks in to make us safe: the fear of new things. Most creatures, in unfamiliar places take a few bites of something new, and then wait to make sure it doesn’t make them sick. Experimenting through trial and error can take a little while, thus animals may lose weight when introduced to a new environment with unfamiliar foods.
In extreme cases cattle have actually chosen to eat a familiar toxic plant over unfamiliar nutritious plants in a new pasture. This was the experience of a western rancher who had to move a portion of his herd because of drought on his home ranch. Mick Holder said that in 30 years of ranching, he’d never had problems with cattle eating the locoweed or lupine on his home base. The cattle that stayed home did fine, but those that were moved 100 miles away ate the familiar, toxic weeds and many died.
Just so you know, this something all creatures do, including humans. For example, I was in Canada on a speaking tour for a week several years ago. On the first morning, when I woke up in a new town needing breakfast, I looked out my hotel window to see what might be available. Across the street was a busy place called Tim Horton’s. I’d never seen a place like that. But, looking further down the street, I did recognize the Golden Arches of McDonald’s about a 1/4 mile away. Even though the food at McDonald’s isn’t my favorite, I at least knew what to expect there, so I bundled up to trudge through the snow and sub-zero weather to get some breakfast. I changed my behavior, when one of my trusted hosts took me to Tim Horton’s where I found a tasty selection of soups, bagels and sandwiches. Like livestock, I learned from a herd mate what to eat.
So, why did Mick Holder’s cows eat foods they knew were bad for them?
There are likely two reasons the traveling cows poisoned themselves. First, we know that animals will choose the familiar over the unfamiliar – just like I chose McDonald’s over an unknown place. Second, research has shown that when creatures are under stress a lower dose of a toxin can have a much greater impact. Amounts of lupine that the cattle could have safely eaten at home became deadly because the cattle were already stressed by being in unfamiliar surroundings.
How can you use this?
So what should you do to make sure your livestock are safe when you move them to a place they’ve never been before? You have a variety of options:
• Bring some food from the new place to their familiar pasture so they can try them there first.
• Bring some hay/forage from their familiar pasture to tide them over while they get used to their new home.
• Have animals that are familiar with the new pasture be the “hosts” for the new arrivals, showing them the ropes and what to eat and where to drink.
• If you know there is something that could be a potential threat, fence it out of the pasture.
• Reduce the initial stress of arriving in a new place by making sure animals are full when they arrive, or have plenty of familiar food to eat when they arrive.
• If the new place is the feed lot, you can prepare your cattle for the new environment ahead of time by introducing them to the Total Mixed Ration they will eat there and the troughs it will be served in.
One last thought, when I was running my big goat herd, I used to take about 15 to 20 minutes to show them around the new pasture they’d be working in. I showed them where the water was, the fence line, and a good spot for bedding down. I found that they settled in more quickly, and were less likely to test the fence. They also didn’t just hang at the gate hoping I’d come back again. Sometimes that little bit of time you take to welcome your livestock to their new homes can make everyone’s lives a lot easier.
This article lays out how animals learn and choose what to eat. There are some great videos of animals in the learning process too!