Q&A : Livestock foraging behavior

Most old-time cowboys, who spent the better part of their life watching cows graze, could tell you that animal behavior truly dictates how animals act and what they eat.

Most old-time cowboys, who spent the better part of their life watching cows graze, could tell you that animal behavior truly dictates how animals act and what they eat. But as the beef industry has gotten caught up in speed and technology, today’s cowboys don’t have a lot of time to watch cows graze.

Thankfully, research at Utah State University over the last 25 years has done much of that observing for us. Under the leadership of Fred Provenza, a professor in USU’s College of Natural Resources’ Department of Wildland Resources, he and his colleagues have conducted some of the world’s leading research on how animals learn and the factors that affect diet and habitat selection.

For the past several years, Provenza has worked alongside a team of researchers in a consortium called BEHAVE – Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management. The program was funded by a $4.4 million Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. Staffed with collaborators throughout the world, the program aims to understand behavioral principles and processes that govern diet and habitat selection for both two-legged and four-legged animals.

Why is foraging behavior important to today’s cattle industry?

The Utah researchers believe that understanding the principles that govern diet and habitat selection will enable land managers to improve management of their animals and resources. Specifically, grazing efficiency can be enhanced while lowering costs and stress to the animals – which ultimately could improve sustainability and profitability.

Modifying animal behavior can also be used to help create more balanced use of riparian areas and uplands, improve wildlife habitat and rejuvenate landscapes.

What are examples of behavior principles?

Much of what the Utah research has found is that animals, be it birds, wildlife or livestock, learn through experiences early in life – especially from their mother and peers – and through feedback from their own digestive processes. For instance, when an animal eats a plant that contains toxins, the animal will experience a mild illness and later that plant will taste bad to the animal and it is less likely to eat that plant in the future.

Variety is another factor that shape’s an animal’s diet selection. If they are raised with a diverse variety of plants to choose from they are more likely to be inquisitive and frequently try new plants.

Each of these factors can impact grazing management – and understanding these principles can help train animals to select the forages land managers want them to eat.

How are these principles being applied in grazing situations?

As an example, look at digestive feedback and first impressions. The Utah researchers say whether it’s introducing ruminants to grain, poor-quality roughage, or plants high in toxins, first experiences animals have with foods can have long lasting effects on their intake of those foods. If that first impression is a negative one, the animal likely won’t willingly try that new food again.

Thus, managers need to make experiences with new foods positive for the animal. One way to do that is by using small amounts of supplements or adding familiar flavors.

For instance, one Utah graduate student supplemented sheep with energy and protein on a heavily infested sagebrush pasture – this helped encourage them to eat more sagebrush. The researchers found that once the sheep were trained to eat sagebrush they continued to do so even when they were no longer supplemented.

Similarly, Kathy Voth is turning cows into weed managers by using supplement and training them to eat things like distaff and Italian thistle. Over the period of about a week, Voth will keep animals in a drylot setting and introduce them to new foods – including weeds – with a small amount of corn or molasses sprinkled on them. After a day or two, Voth stops feeding the supplement and the cattle continue to eat the weedy forage in the drylot and then later when turned out to pasture. Her most recent project was last summer in Marin County, California. For more about the project visit www.livestockforlandscapes.com.

What other topics are being studied?

Studies addressing toxins in plants and how to overcome them are another big area being researched. One study is looking at multi-species plantings where species with certain toxins counteract the toxins in troublesome plants, such as endophyte infected grasses.

The ability of a mother to “imprint” her offspring with diet selection knowledge has also been heavily researched.

In an effort to help managers apply some of these behavior practices on their operations the BEHAVE outreach program is creating “What we know guidelines.” Each guideline lists information and benefits of a particular practice. The first two guidelines: Exposing animals to grain with mom improves intake of grain at weaning and feedlot performance and Exposing animals to poor-quality foods with mom can be viewed at www.behave.net. Additional guidelines will be created in the future.

How can you get more information?

The website mentioned above, www.behave.net, is a great starting point to find fact sheets, videos, research updates, educational opportunities, and examples of how others are putting animal behavior principles to work in the field. Much of the effort is led by Beth Burritt, the BEHAVE Outreach program director. She has worked with Provenza and conducted research on animal learning and behavior for 21 years. She also produces a monthly e-mail newsletter highlighting the BEHAVE consortium’s research and outreach programs.

Burritt and Kathy Voth have also initiated the BEHAVE Facilitator’s Network with the purpose of spreading the word about behavior principles and how producers and land managers can incorporate them into their operations.

Presently they are training BEHAVE facilitators within various states in the West, such as Extension and NRCS personnel, so they can help disseminate the information to others. The training includes a notebook of materials with fact sheets, CDs with videos of animals demonstrating behavior at work, and tips for putting on behavior workshops.

Voth and Burritt say their goal is to eventually have BEHAVE facilitators in every state and country – in the hope that someday animal behavior principles can become commonplace in helping meet land management objectives.