Nineteen years ago, in February of 2004, I began developing a method to teach cows (and other livestock) to add weeds to their diets. It began as a pilot project at Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, Montana to see if all the research I’d read on how animals choose what to eat could be turned into a practical tool for managing weeds.
The steps I used were based on the principles of animal behavior, two decades of research that demonstrated that animals learn what to eat from mother, herd mates and experience, and information about what weeds were nutritious and safe to eat. That spring, I taught a small herd of shorthorns, longhorns, and Herefords to eat Canada thistle, leafy spurge and spotted knapweed. When I went back in 2005, they were still eating those weeds, and had added others to their diets as well.
I was thrilled. Here was an easy, efficient and inexpensive process that would save graziers tons of time and money. So I wrote up the steps, made a video, and sent the information off to magazines so they could share the good news. “My work here is done!” I thought.
But no. Folks thought I was crazy. So I spent a decade making the process even faster and easier (now just 8 hours spread over 7 days), and doing workshops and on-the-ground projects. I trained over 1,000 cattle, a herd of bison for Ted Turner, groups of goats, and a flock or two of sheep. I traveled six months out of the year (Canada in the winter! Ugh!) trying to help people turn their weeds into forage so they could have more forage, more free time, and more money.
What I learned is that cows are easier to teach and faster to change than farmers and ranchers. They can be a hard-headed lot. In fact, research shows that it takes ten years of data and another ten years of slow adoption before they really take to a new practice.
Ten years ago I used to joke that in 2024, I would pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate that everyone was teaching their livestock to eat weeds and it was so common that my name and what I’d done had been forgotten. I have one year to go to make that happen. So this Spring I’m going to try again with articles and resources that make it easy for you to get more out of your pastures.
I hope I can make a difference to you.
Thanks for reading!