WASHINGTON, Oct. 28, 2015 - On the animal nutrition front, some veteran ranchers and other livestock experts are loosening their reins – letting animals in pasture or feedlots browse feed selections separately rather than formulating rations for them.

Why? Because more often than not, animals’ tongues, tummies and brains know what’s best for the critters’ own health and growth on a day-to-day basis, says Fred Provenza, who has researched animal behavior and nutrition for 40 years. He’s now an emeritus professor at Utah State University (USU), where he started a team called Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management (BEHAVE) 14 years ago, focused on how animals learn what to eat and how and why they select or avoid feed and forage.

As many ranchers themselves try to do, “our whole approach has been to learn from the animals. It takes people who are interested in observing animals, spending time with them and learning from them. They [the animals] are the ones who know, ultimately,” says Provenza.

The BEHAVE team findings on animal eating behaviors starts with the old adage that “Mom Knows Best” when it comes to teaching their offspring what to eat. Grazing animals learn early in life and naturally avoid unfamiliar foods the older they get. Their stomachs signal their brains and palates about what’s nutritious and what isn’t. Plus, what’s best for an individual animal can change seasonally or even through the course of each day, and USU folks have shown that an animal’s own palate is a very good compass.

Thus, BEHAVE recommends self-selection from diverse feed and forage offerings, whether in barns or feedlots, rather than in pre-mixed rations. It’s cafeteria-style eating, basically, and several USU studies with cattle have shown such systems result in faster-growing and healthier animals. They also reduce costs because the animals waste less feed getting to the nutrients they actually need.

Bison ranchers seem to have emerged as the poster child for feed self-selection. In a video, Mark Kossler, who oversees media mogul Ted Turner’s bison herds in the West, explains how his research demonstrated superior performance when bison scavenge their own forage, often of low quality. And a related research report tells how young bison bulls offered supplemental energy pellets while grazing through winter in an open North Dakota pasture gained weight faster and more cheaply and stayed healthier (fewer deaths), than those kept in a Colorado feedlot and offered a mixed ration designed for young bison.

Dave Carter, president of the National Bison Association, says many U.S. cattle ranchers tried initially in the late 20th Century to raise bison much as they did cattle. But, he says, “most of our producers now take a ‘what’s-best-for-bison’ perspective, rather than a ‘this-worked-for-cattle’ approach.”

Bison are still a wild species, he says. “They do better on poor quality forage and feed,” and eat a lot less in winter because their metabolism slows down. Plus, he says, they have a strict social pecking order that results in herd stress and fighting when confined. They are typically offered some grain and other rich feed when finished for slaughter, he says, but ranchers have learned to let them live and forage freely in pastures.

John Paterson, who ranches in Montana and heads producer education for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, sees a trend in the West toward offering a mix of supplements to pastured cow herds. “We’ve begun to develop self-fed supplements,” which may include soy meal, molasses and minerals, for example, set out in tubs that can be refilled every week or so for cows to lick when they feel like it. The idea, he says, is to ensure the cattle, which may get 4 to 6 percent protein overall in the forage, will get at least the 8 percent protein diet needed for good health.

But in feedlots, so far, self-selection is not common, Paterson says. Calves first entering the feedlot may be offered hay separately until they start to eat silage, for example, but mixed rations are still the rule, he says. “It’s just economics; it’s cheaper,” he says, and often calves are fed twice a day, instead of once, allowing a manager to more closely observe how much is being eaten and to minimize waste.

Meanwhile, Provenza talks about the advantages of teaching cattle as well as learning from them. Ranchers can teach livestock to eat something new, including stuff they might not naturally much like. Ranchers in Utah, for instance, saw thistles flourishing in their pastures. They just sprayed some molasses on the thistles, he says, and the herd quickly started munching them, adding them to their regular diet.

Kathy Voth, now editor of On Pasture, a grazing news and education website, took the teaching of animals to eat weeds seriously more than a decade ago when working to control weeds on Bureau of Land Management range. She reports finding a herd on a Nebraska ranch eating and enjoying supposedly toxic leafy spurge in 2004. She found the noxious weed had no ill effects on cattle when grazed with other plants. Plus she observed that one member of a herd teaches others to try new forages, and they, in turn, teach further generations. Thus, she says, you only need to teach the trick once to a herd.

Voth has built a toolbox of ways to get grazing animals to eat weeds and teaches ranchers how to instill weed-eating for their herds. “I learned that cows are incredibly easy to teach.” Her story: “When I first taught cows to eat weeds . . . I thought, ‘This is great and it’s so easy, too. I wrote articles for magazines and did a video about it that people could buy on my website. I thought, ‘there, everyone will believe us now. And nothing changed.” It’s farmers and ranchers who are hard to teach, she decided.


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