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Grazing Animals Always Default to What Mom Ate

by Mark Kepler
Fulton County Extension educator and grazier

Published: Friday, November 20, 2020

Grazing in Michiana

As I walk through the pasture, familiar plants are all around, crested wheat grass, lead plant, buck brush and sage. No, I am not in northern Indiana, but on the prairies of my wife's family ranch in South Dakota where I have visited at least yearly for the past 39 years. There, the cattle graze on totally different plants than what we find here.

Just like the plants growing there represent species that can handle the rugged and cold environment, the cattle have adapted to know which of these plants to eat and which ones not to consume. How do they know? Because momma told them.

It is interesting to watch the learning environment of a young animal. Within the first week of life, newborn goats are watching what their moms are eating and start to mimic them. First, it is the hay and soon they notice how eagerly mom goes for the grain, so they are soon eating out of the same pan, just like momma.

Just like we praise children when the day comes that they can wear big boy pants, livestock are anxious to mimic their mom. A study in the '90s demonstrated how a mother could influence her offspring to eat more of a low-quality food. Researchers exposed goat kids to a southwestern plant called blackbrush. One group was with their mothers and another group without.

When the kids were 4 and 13 months old, they were given the plant again. The kids that ate it with their mothers when young consumed about twice as much of the poor-quality shrub, compared to the control group. The group that had been exposed to blackbrush with mother continued to eat more of the shrub even as increasing levels of nutritious alfalfa pellets were offered alongside blackbrush. Momma never taught them to eat alfalfa.

A local beef producer purchased a bull from Texas and it grew poorly on the Indiana alfalfa orchardgrass pasture it was brought to graze. Our lush forages are not what they were raised on in Texas.

I have a University of Arizona publication that speaks of an experiment done with four groups of goats that had been reared in four different types of forages.

"Then they were placed together in a diverse pasture comprised of about 100 plant species. Animals from each group still continued to prefer the forages on which they were originally raised. They were then tracked for the next four years and diets gradually converged across the four goat groups. Each successive generation of goats still preferred a few key plant species that could be traced back to the original goats grazing during the first year of the study."

The animal that does not have an opportunity to learn from mom are dairy calves. I have never seen data, but I suspect they have more of a tendency to potentially eat a plant they should not. Once a plant makes an animal sick, they are more likely to remember it and stay away. I just had a goat sick for four days with diarrhea when she ate too much grain. She is now back to eating some grain, but very little.

However, it just seems like in the world of grain, their memory is short. Everyone is greedily trying to get all they can and they fall back into the habit of being part of the aggressive crowd. Humans talk about crowd psychology where people will do something in a group that you would not do alone. Goats are a great study in herd behavior; you can watch them fighting off one animal, all while others are busily taking their grain. It goes back to the concept that animals can only process one thought at a time. They see an immediate threat but don't comprehend the long-term consequences.

Humans need to know the long-term consequences. That is why the old term animal husbandry should still be part of our thinking as a livestock owner. It is more of a holistic concept. Any discussion of holistic agriculture should start with the phase, "In the beginning." To know where we want to go, we have to see from whence things have come. It would be nice to know what they were eating while they were there.

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