When it comes to food preferences, cattle are a lot like people. They prefer the feeds and forages they ate when they were young. They like the things their mother showed them to eat as calves.
Fred Provenza, a professor at Utah State University Department of Rangeland Resources, found that exposing a calf to a feed it will encounter later in life makes the calf more willing to eat that feed as a mature animal. A very short exposure time is all that is needed.
What's more, if both the calf and its dam are fed the novel feed for a few hours for a week, the calf will eat more of this feed after it matures. For this to work, however, the mother must eat the feed along with the calf because she teaches her calf what to eat.
In one experiment, animals moved to a new pasture with strange, novel forage spent 25% more time foraging and ate 40% less compared to animals that had been raised on the same type of forage.
Provenza also found young cattle adapt better to eating new, novel feeds compared to mature animals. But, even young cattle, such as stockers, will perform better if they are moved from a familiar type of pasture to another pasture that contain similar forages.
If stockers or weaned calves have to be moved to a totally different type of pasture, it's best to move them into high-quality pasture. The worst scenario is to move animals from a poor pasture to another poor pasture with totally different forages. If the animal must be moved to another poor pasture, it should contain similar forages.
Provenza suggests that, in purchasing adult cows, buyers should make sure those cattle are from a ranch with forages similar to those on the buyer's ranch. Because older animals are less adaptable than younger animals, buying adult cows from another part of the country with totally different pastures isn't recommended.
Clearing The Plate
Cows and calves also can be taught to eat less palatable forages by using high stocking densities for a short period of time. This forces the animals to eat their “broccoli” along with their “ice cream,” so to speak, Provenza says. It also helps prevent less desirable plants from overtaking pastures.
Calves raised by mothers that eat the less palatable forage will still like to eat such feed when they are older. In fact, one approach to keep cattle out of riparian areas is to ensure the calf is exposed to, and eating, some of the less palatable plants with its mother. When it matures, it will be less motivated to eat the riparian forage.
Provenza also states that, like people, cattle don't like their food mixed together. Humans don't like their peas, ice cream and mashed potatoes mixed together. Neither do cattle. Research with dairy cows showed that cows gave 11% more milk when clover and grass were planted in separate rows instead of mixing the clover and grass seed together.
Temple Grandin is a Colorado State University assistant professor, and a world-renowned animal behaviorist and specialist in animal handling. For more, visit her Web site at www.grandin.com.