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Why Cows Can Eat Weeds – The Science Behind How Animals Choose What to Eat

This is Part 2 in the “Cows Eat Weeds” Series. If you missed Part 1, Weeds Are Great Forage and Grazing Them Makes You Money, here it is.

Some things seem like magic until you see what’s behind the curtain. When it comes to teaching cows to eat weeds, there’s no magic at all. It’s just based on what a group of scientists led by Dr. Fred Provenza learned over several decades of research into how animals chose what to eat.

It was his picture of a steer eating a rabbit that first caught my attention. What he was doing was so interesting that I dove in and read his research papers, and then I got excited about the possibilities of using this information for something new: teaching cows to eat weeds. I hope you’ll get excited too!

Eight Behavior Principles

Here’s what the researchers learned summarized into principles. There are short, fun videos that I made to illustrate several of them. Enjoy!

What Do Cows Eat, and Why?

Palatability is More Than a Matter of Taste

Let’s reinforce this idea just a bit more. In the article above, you saw two videos – one showing sheep eating straw because of past good nutritional feedback, and the other showing what happens when animals experience a toxin in a food. This is what’s happening behind the scenes:

Everybody is an Individual

The training process is a recipe and just like any recipe, you sometimes have to make adjustments. When you’re baking you sometimes have to add a little more flour or moisture to get the consistency you need for your dough. And when training your animals you sometimes have to make adjustments to fit your location and your animals. You might train in a corral, or you might do it in pasture. Your animals might be quick to learn, or they may need you to adjust what you’re doing just a bit to help them figure out what you’re asking of them. The important part is to observe and then to keep the 8 behavior principles in mind because they’ll help you consider what to do.

Here’s an example from my own work showing how I adjusted the training recipe to fit a group of cattle I worked with in Boulder County, Colorado. This group of 50 heifers was learning to eat late season diffuse knapweed. They were grazing on a 500 acre pasture with one road access point – a place where the remains of a coal mining operation sat. In this video you’ll see what I did along the way to create a learning success.

A Funny!

Finally, how animals respond to training depends on the herd and can change over time. So here’s a little video to help you with your expectations:

https://onpasture.com/2023/03/13/cows-running-to-eat-weeds/

Ready to teach your livestock to eat weeds?

Here’s a page of resources and links to articles and more videos.

Turn Your Livestock Into Weed Eaters

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Vothhttps://onpasture.com
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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