Teaching Old Dogs (Cattle, Sheep, Goats) New Tricks

By : Jimmy D. Wright, Rangeland Management Specialist, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Would you like to turn your weed management over to your livestock? Imagine the savings in time and the expense of herbicide application while gaining an additional, productive feed source. Is it too good to be true? It is happening in a number of places now.

Researchers have been utilizing animal behavior and adaptability to “train” livestock to eat weeds and/or self-medicate in order to utilize plants with toxic secondary compounds which normally limit the amount ingested by livestock. So what does this mean to you? By adopting some of these techniques, you could use your livestock to help manage noxious and obnoxious weeds on your place.

Kathy Voth, founder of Livestock for Landscapes, LLC, has “trained” livestock to eat such weeds as Canada thistle, distaff thistle, bull thistle, musk thistle, diffuse knapweed, Russian knapweed, wild rose, yarrow, and yucca. She likes to use young, female animals for training because younger animals will experiment with new foods more, and these animals will train their offspring as well as herd/flock counterparts. Kathy researches the toxic compounds and nutritional values of the target weed before she sets out to “train” livestock to eat them. She has observed animals “trained” three years ago still eating the targeted weeds.

In other situations, animals have been trained to self-medicate for some secondary compounds or to mix enough variety in their diets to compensate for the secondary compounds. In Reno County, Kansas, a study was conducted to see if cattle would voluntarily self-medicate in order to consume a larger amount of sericea lespedeza. The animals were “trained” to seek out polyethylene glycol (PEG – simple plastic) when foraging areas with a fairly high canopy cover of sericea lespedeza. PEG offsets the unpleasant consequences of the tannins in sericea lespedeza by binding with them, rendering them inactive. They found that significantly more sericea lespedeza was consumed by trained animals when the PEG was available than when it was not available or when the animals were not trained.

These are only two examples of using animal behavior to assist in the management of weeds. Further information may be found at www.livestockforlandscapes.com and www.behavior.net. The benefits of using livestock to help manage weeds far outweigh the small amount of time and expense needed to “train” them. Think of the time and expense saved by not having to constantly deal with weed management.

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