Alternative uses for cattle: weed whacker

Jun 7, 2013

OK… “weed eater” would be more accurate.

For nine years, a Colorado woman has been on a mission to change the way ranchers think about forage. She claims a simple weeklong Pavlovian lesson can train cattle to not only eat, but seek out and enjoy, invasive weeds on the range.

Kathy Voth, founder of Livestock for Landscapes, spoke at the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, NE, on May 30 about her work training cows to eat invasive plants. The process is easy, she said, and has many benefits.

The most obvious benefit of course is the added forage availability. Cattle that will only eat grasses are at a disadvantage compared to those which will also eat thistles, sages, knapweed and others. And if cattle can and will eat weeds, that removes the need to spray for or otherwise destroy them, which represents both time and money.

According to Livestock for Landscapes, another benefit ranchers may not know about weed-eating cattle comes down to nutrition. The site lists seven weeds—Canada thistle, leafy spurge, spotted knapweed, distaff thistle, Italian thistle, purple starthistle and Russian knapweed—which have the nutritional value on par with alfalfa. Half of these weeds are also on the U.S. Forest Service’s list of invasive plant species.

WLJ talked to Voth about the details of weed-eating cattle and nutrition. On the topic of the higher protein content of many weeds compared to grasses, she said that the weed-eating cattle she’s observed balance their diet with higher levels of oldplant roughage.

“The research shows us that animals will mix their own diet better than we can.”

She spoke at length about a Utah State University study wherein two groups of steers were studied regarding their feed choices. One group was fed a total mixed ration (TMR), and the other group was offered the ingredients of the TMR, but separated out. Reportedly, both groups of steers gained weight at similar rates, but the steers mixing their own diet gained weight for 20 percent less cost.

“We could save a lot of money by just letting cows do what they do,” she said.

One thing Voth said about training cattle to eat weeds was that it made them more “adventurous” about their diets in general. It effectively makes them more “open minded” about what constitutes food. That raised the question of whether an overly adventurous cow might inadvertently poison itself by eating the wrong thing.

“Not as long as you have pastures with plenty of variety,” she answered. She gave the example of a herd in Boulder County, CO, she’s been working with for years, saying that while the cattle do eat potentially poisonous plants, in having a variety of available forages, they have not come to any harm.

“They make bad decisions if I turn them out when they’re really, really hungry, or if they have no choices. But as long as I provide them plenty of variety, they will do well,” she said.

“Since I started this in 2004, no animal has ever died or gotten sick as a result of eating weeds.”

Voth did, however, stress that she has only ever worked with ruminants— she started with sheep and goats in her weed-eating livestock efforts, but shifted over to cattle after some years— and that livestock with different digestive systems can react differently to various plant toxins. Training Voth’s training methods for getting cattle to eat weeds is more a method for training them to eat new things and simply including weeds into the mix. She explained that cattle will eat what their mothers and their herd mates teach them to eat, so if the cow only eats grass and doesn’t try anything new, the calf will follow suit. But if conditioned to accept new things via positive reinforcement, even adult cattle can be swayed.

The process of training lasts about a week. On the first four days, she feeds cattle eight different but tasty and nutritious foodstuffs all at the same time.

She said these “snacks” introduce cattle to foods they’ve never tried before, but in a positive way.

“I go to the store and pick out eight unfamiliar but nutritious items, like alfalfa pellets and wheat bran, that the cattle have never tried before. I give those to them morning and afternoon for four days.”

WLJ asked if the training requires that cattle are penned, but she said no.

“I generally train in pasture because it’s easier.”

Again she referred to the Boulder County herd, explaining that she’d bring the “training tubs” with the new food items to the pastures and honk her truck’s horn, calling the cattle down from wherever they were.

“The first couple days they’re not sure if they want to come, but they get the idea that something good is coming so they come rushing down.”

After the four days of training the cattle that the tubs with the new foods are a good thing, she skips the morning “snack” and comes only in the afternoon, by which point the cattle are anticipating her arrival. On that afternoon visit, she includes some weeds—whatever might be found in the pasture or a target weed type—along with the treats. This is repeated on the sixth day, and then on the seventh day, only weeds are offered.

The first four days of the training are intended to break down the cattle’s natural inclination to only eat known foods and get them interested in trying new things while the introduction of weeds is to get them to know those plants are good to eat, too. In the process, cattle will then seek out those now-known weeds to eat when they are grazing the pastures on their own.

Timing of the training isn’t an issue. So long as the cattle are easily accessible to bring in the training tubs of new feed, it can be done at the rancher’s convenience.

“I’ve trained all through the grazing season,” Voth said. “It’s basically what’s best for the producers themselves. It’s just whenever you can get started.”

Voth did say, however, that this year would be an excellent year to train cattle to eat weeds as the recent—and in some cases, ongoing— drought has reduced the available forage on western ranges, and in some states has encouraged the growth of weeds over grasses.

Voth admitted that some ranchers are skeptical about getting cattle to eat weeds, either in the nutritional value or the training itself. She referenced several studies regarding the nutritional value of common range weeds and challenged producers to try her training method.

“If you think it won’t work for you, I really tell people to call me because I like solving unsolvable problems.”

Voth can be reached at 970/663-6569 and more information on training cattle to eat weeds and the benefits thereof can be found online at www.livestockfor — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor