In 2004, I developed a simple method that anyone can use to train livestock to eat weeds. In this month’s Grazier’s Focus I tell the story of how this all happened, what the process looks like, and the benefits to graziers of having a weed-eating herd. That probably leaves you with some questions. Here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions.
Do I have to train my whole herd?
No. When I’m in the West, where herds can be quite large, I typically train 50 animals at a time. In the East, where herds are smaller, this could be the whole herd. I recommend training at least a dozen animals at a time.
Trained animals will teach their offspring and others in the herd to eat weeds and it will happen in a matter of hours to a couple of days. I’ve had 12 teach 110, steers learn from heifers in the next pasture, separated from them by an electric fence. It’s impressive how quickly animals learn what to eat from one another.
Instead of training, can I just spray molasses on the weeds and the animals will eat them?
You can, but it might not work, and if it does, it will take longer and you won’t get one of the important benefits the training provides. Here’s a little video explaining more, or jump below for the story.
When people started thinking that molasses as the silver bullet, I ran an experiment with two groups of cows. One group was untrained, the other had been through the first four days of the training process. We gave both groups a mixture of the weed with molasses. The trained group ate 81 ounces on their first try and the untrained group ate 3 ounces.
The training process also opens trainees minds to the idea that food comes in a wide variety of forms. As a result, they try other plants in pasture so that you don’t have to train them on your own or take the time to spray them with molasses.
I no longer use molasses in the training process because it really doesn’t help the cows. The only time I use it is if the grazier is nervous. Animals seem to read that body language as, “Uh oh, there’s something scary about this food,” and the don’t want to eat it. It seems that drizzling a small amount of molasses on the weeds relaxes everyone, and the cows learn to eat it.
Don’t the spines and prickles on the plant hurt animals?
It doesn’t seem to affect them at all. In California I taught cows to eat Italian thistle, a plant with such sharp thorns that I wore welding gloves to protect my hands and STILL got poked. But the cows ate it with relish, both from tubs and in pasture. I’ve yet to see a cow injured by eating a plant with thorns or spines.
If the plants have toxins won’t animals be poisoned?
All plants contain toxins. But very few are so toxic that they cause immediate death. It’s generally the dose that does the damage. Because animals choose how much to eat of something based on their individual needs and the nutrients and toxins in a plant, IF THEY HAVE VARIETY IN PASTURE, they can mix their own healthy, safe diet.
Does weed eating affect the meat or milk?
No. Both research and practical experience shows that there is no difference in the flavor or quality of milk or meat from weed-eating animals.
Will weed-eating animals spread weeds?
While a seed-loaded cow pie makes a good growing medium, there are so many other ways that weeds are being spread that this is the least of your worries. Besides, if they do spread, the cows will eat them where ever they appear.
Can Cows eradicate weeds?
I don’t think we can ask cows to do something that herbicides have failed to do. The truth is that we can’t eradicate weeds so we’re better off finding ways to manage them and benefit from them if possible.
Is Kathy a Kook?
I may be a kook, but not because I’m promoting cows and other livestock as weed managers. This is a science-based, proven, inexpensive method for dealing with pasture weeds. It seems to me it’s kookier to spray weeds year after
year without making progress than it is to turn the into something useful.
Do you have more questions? Leave them in the comments below. I can answer them and direct you to more information. As a start, here’s a page with links to articles on the process and more, as well as the Cows Eat Weeds ebook set.
Thanks for reading!