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Learning how to graze: Cow-to-calf grazing knowledge

Jack C. Whittier Published on 24 August 2012
Grazing cattle

I grew up in 4-H and I assume many of those reading this also have 4-H experience.

I recall as a youngster at the beginning of our 4-H club meetings we would stand and recite the 4-H slogan.

The 4-H slogan where I grew up was “Learn by Doing.” I don’t think I understood the full significance of this slogan at the time, but I have reflected back on these three words many times over the past 50-ish years.

There is really no substitute for actually doing something, not just reading or hearing about it.

I have come to understand that the principle of “Learn by Doing” also applies to livestock. For example, a group of range scientists at Utah State University, headed up by Dr. Fred Provenza, reported results from a study designed to measure the impact of early grazing experience on grazing behavior as yearlings.

They reported in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science that, when animals were older, they tended to graze where their dam or foster dam grazed, suggesting an effect of early learning on where older cattle graze.

The range science group at Utah State University coordinates a website called BEHAVE which is an acronym for Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management.

The website lists a number of fundamental behavior principles the authors have learned throughout the course of their research studies.

Three of these principles are directly related to the learning that occurs between a dam and offspring. Or, an example of “Learning by Doing.” These principles are:

“Mother knows best” – An animal’s mother has the greatest influence on the foods an animal chooses to eat and where it chooses to live. Once trained, animals will pass new behaviors on to their offspring automatically.

Early experiences matter most – Animal behavior changes throughout their lives based on experience. Animals are more likely to try new things, including foods, early in life.

Experience can change an animal’s physiology, neurology, the structure of its body – even gene expression.

Animals must learn how to forage – Believe it or not, animals actually have to learn how to eat. Young animals acquire foraging skills more quickly early in life than older animals.

So how might understanding more about the learning process of cattle, and the impact of the dam on the offspring’s grazing, be used in production situations? Let’s consider a few situations:

Buying or raising replacement heifers – Over the years, I have suggested that purchasing replacement females may be a viable approach for many cattle producers.

The real costs associated with raising one’s own heifers often are higher than the true costs of purchasing heifers – particularly when the opportunity costs for the value of the weaned heifer calf and the feed resources consumed by the raised heifer are considered.

However, in light of the recent understanding of the impact of dam training on her offspring, raising heifers with experience in the environment they go back into as cows should be considered in making the raise-or-buy decision.

This would be most important when heifers are purchased from vastly different forage environments and is likely not as important if heifers are sourced from a similar geographic region.

Avoidance of poisonous plants – Dr. Jim Pfister, a USDA-ARS rangeland scientist at the Poisonous Plants Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah, presented a paper in 1999 at the “Grazing Behavior of Livestock and Wildlife” symposium.

In his paper, Dr. Pfister stated, “It is clear that animals limit their consumption of poisonous plants at times. How do animals ‘know’ which plants are poisonous?

Grazing animals may innately detect and avoid plant toxins (i.e. genetic mechanisms). Alternately, herbivores may learn about plant toxicity through digestive consequences.” Experience with poisonous plants by young animals has been shown to have a lasting effect on their ability to avoid such plants later in life.

Breed development environment – Breeds developed in environments with steep, rugged terrain have been shown to graze differently than breeds developed in less rugged terrains.

According to research, Tarentaise cattle, a breed developed in the French Alps, consistently climb higher and graze at higher elevations further from water when compared with Herefords.

This phenomenon has also been shown when comparing Angus, Charolais, Piedmontese and Saler bulls. Cows sired by Charolais and Piedmontese bulls travel farther from water than cows sired by Angus bulls.

Weed control – Kathy Voth, who worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years, later founded “Livestock for Landscapes,” an organization designed for helping farmers, ranchers and land managers train cows to eat weeds.

Voth has used her experience with the BLM to develop a method for controlling weeds with cattle. Voth’s website lists four steps she has used successfully to train cows to eat weeds as a means of weed control. Click here to learn more about the process outlined by Voth for weed control.

Voth’s steps for training animals are:

  1. Know your plant – Begin by finding out about the nutritional value and the toxins in your target plant. Many weeds are very nutritious but, like all plants, they contain toxins. Prevent illness by knowing your toxins.
  2. Choose the right animals to train – Young animals are more likely to try new things; females stay in the herd longer than males and teach their offspring. Train only as many as you can handle. They will teach everyone else for you.
  3. Reduce the fear of new foods – Setting up a daily routine of feeding animals something nutritious but unfamiliar gives them positive experiences with new foods and makes them comfortable trying new foods.
  4. Feed them something new twice a day for four days. When you introduce your target weed on the fifth day, they’ll eat it because it’s just one more new thing in their routine of new things.
  5. Practice in pasture – Each new plant requires that your animal learns a new grazing technique. Give them a day or two to practice in small “classroom” size pastures. Then when you send them out in the world, they’ll have the skills they need.

Nature – including human nature – is full of examples where the mother has a dramatic impact on the knowledge, behavior, eating habits, personality and many, many other traits of her offspring.

It should not be surprising that a cow’s training of her calf about how and where to graze is also highly controlled by early life experiences.

Understanding and applying these principles can help ranchers and cattle producers improve production while enhancing their grazing resource.

The 4-H slogan, “Learn by Doing” was something I learned at a young age from my mother and other leaders. I guess that principle still applies in my life today.  end_mark

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

jack whittier

Jack C. Whittier

Extension beef specialist
Colorado State University

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