Noxious weeds are not typically among the food items cattle like to eat, but research has shown that cattle can be trained to do just that, which could be a real benefit to ranchers.
This past summer, Montana Farmers Union received a grant to teach cattle to eat weeds. The pilot program, which builds on the research of NRCS scientists in Colorado and Montana, recently concluded and has been deemed a great success by the ranchers involved.
"It is working," said Chris Christiaens, adding that the pastures they tested showed the weed the cattle were trained to eat - Canadian thistle - never matured. The plant remained about five inches tall, but they did not have any seed pods and did not go to seed. "Therefore, they can't spread," he said.
Christiaens is lobbyist and project specialist for MFU. His is also in charge of the training program to get cattle eating weeds.
The training program is simple, takes about five days to complete, and costs approximately $225, and that includes buying feeders. If a producer already has troughs and feeders, it would cost even less.
This year three Valier, Mont.-area farmers successfully introduced their cattle herds to eating Canadian thistle. Cattle on the ranches of Tom Christiaens (Chris's brother), Darryl Habets and Maurice Tacke are now eating not only Canadian thistle, but also Musk thistle (cirsium vulgare), also known as Bull thistle, which has taken hold in some of the pastures in the area. All those involved in the program have been amazed at the speed in which the cattle adapted to their new diets. They are also excited for this spring.
"As soon as things green up, these cows are going to continue and their calves should also learn to eat the weeds. The calves think if it's good for mom, it must be good," Christiaens explained.
The simple training program involves preparing the animals to accept and look forward to different kinds of tastes and textures. Special grains in pellet or flake form, such as alfalfa, barley or soybeans, were added to the cattle's diet in a specified schedule over a period of approximately one week.
During this time, the cattle are introduced to familiar, and then not-so-familiar tastes and textures in an effort to train them to become accustomed to trying new foods. Finally, toward the end of the training schedule, chopped weeds are introduced.
The first time they tried the training schedule they used a herd of 70 cattle and also didn't use feeders but, rather, put the feed on the ground which proved troublesome.
"We didn't have as much luck. We had better luck teaching groups of just 15 cattle to eat weeds and putting the feed in a trough or feeder," he said.
The first day the cattle were fed alfalfa pellets to get them familiar with a new texture using a food they already knew. The afternoon feeding consisted of half alfalfa pellets and half corn on the cob. The cob introduces them to a new food mixed with a familiar one.
On the second day, they served the cob with molasses in the morning. In the afternoon, they served them rolled barley. Again, it was a familiar food in a different form so the cattle would adjust to textures.
On the third day, they fed them sugarbeet pellets. By this time, Christiaens said, the size and shape of the pellets were now familiar to them, but nothing else about this feed.
"When we put out the sugarbeet pellets, the cows came in, looked at the feed and walked away. As soon as we left, they came back and ate every pellet," laughed Christiaens.
That afternoon, they fed the cows soybean flake, their first completely new food in both taste and texture.
On the fourth day, they wanted to feed the cows wheat bran but had trouble finding it, so instead, the cattle were fed range cubes to continue to introduce them to different textures. That afternoon, the cattle received hay cubes that were about 3 inches square.
"This introduced them to a different texture that required them to chew more," he said.
On day five, they gave them weeds mixed with hay and sprayed molasses water over the top of the feed. Christiaens said they came running for that meal. That afternoon, they fed them pure weeds for the first time.
"It was really funny to watch. By this time, the cows were used to seeing us coming and they came out to meet us. The older cows barreled through to get to the feed first," he recalled. The wet year had allowed the weeds to grow tall, some as much as 30 inches tall.
"I remember one cow picked up one of those tall weeds in the center. There was this long weed hanging out of both sides of her mouth and she was just chewing it like crazy. It was fun to watch," he said.
After the cattle were trained, they were turned back out with the other cattle and they just started eating the weeds.
"We went up about 10 days later and you could already see the tops of the Canadian thistle were all bent or gone. The cows eat the leaves first and then the tops, but there is not a single seed pod left and the cows are still eating them," he said.
The cattle also started eating musk thistle, and, some of the non-trained cattle have started eating the weeds, too.
"They don't want to be left out of dessert, so they just joined the others," said Christiaens.
Another positive aspect of the training program is that the weeds have a high protein value.
Christiaens said the NRCS did the same training project up in Shelby, Mont., only they taught those cattle to eat leafy spurge, which is also high in protein.
In 2008, Kathy Voth of Livestock For Landscapes in Loveland, Colo., trained 320 head of cattle and 38 bison in Madison County, Mont., to dine on Canada thistle as part of the "We'd Eat It!" project sponsored and coordinated by the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group's Weed Committee and the NRCS.
"It is cheaper, more efficient and just as effective as herbicides," said Voth.
Melissa Griffiths, project coordinator, said, "We are always looking for more cost effective tools for managing noxious weeds. As prices for fuel and chemicals continue to increase, it makes sense for us to solve our weed problems by turning all our cattle into weed managers."
"It was easy and fun," said Brett Owens of Owens Ranch in McAllister, Mont., whose herd of 21 head learned to eat musk thistle, Canada thistle and spotted knapweed.
"The thistles don't harm the cattle," said Voth. "I have trained a lot of cows to eat Canada thistle and pricklier thistles as well, like the Italian thistle in California that has half-inch spines. Cattle have eaten the weeds with gusto and have developed no sores of any kind."
If producers want to try and train their cattle to eat weeds, Christiaens stressed the importance that they take their target weed into their county Extension agent and make sure that weed will not be toxic to the animal.
He also said that producers are welcome to call him at MFU.
"That's what we're all about. Our mission is to help producers remain financially viable. If we can help them manage weeds along that way, that's what we want to do."
Christiaens said there is some funding left to train other herds and all the producers who now have trained cattle are interested in seeing what happens with the calves born this spring when they start to follow the cows around.
"They should start eating weeds automatically," he said.
When the program is concluded, the results of the grant, which was received from Farmers Union Industries Foundation, will be posted on the MFU Web site along with photos and resources.
Ranchers who are interested in trying to educate their cattle to eat weeds are encouraged to contact MFU for detailed instructions at 406-452-6406.
Day 1: morning - alfalfa pellets; afternoon - half alfalfa pellets, half cob.
Day 2: morning - cob mixed with molasses; afternoon - rolled barley.
Day 3: morning - sugarbeet pellets; afternoon - soybean flake.
Day 4: morning - wheat bran; afternoon - hay cubes.
Day 5: morning - hay mixed with target weeds and sprayed with molasses water; afternoon - target weeds.