West-Central Forage Association

Cows Eating Weeds

By now it should be clear that we like to help producer explore all kinds of ideas. This year we are going to do just that again. We are going to work with a farmer on training his cows back onto to eat weeds. Following the Kathy Voth (http://www.livestockforlandscapes.com) training formula, we plan to re-interest the cows to the veritable salad bar they are turning their nose up at. Much like children that have not be forced to eat their greens, we are going to invest in some time to get those choosy, bad habits corrected. Below are some of the questions, economic and otherwise, that come along with an endeavour such as this:

How do weeds compare with traditional forages when it comes to nutrition?

Weeds are generally more nutritious than grasses in mid-summer and often are equivalent to or better than alfalfa in nutritional value.

If weeds are palatable then why don't my animals just eat them?

When animals' nutritional needs are met then they are unlikely to add a new plant to their diet. Animals just don't like to eat new foods. The training process reduces the fear of new foods. Since most weeds are nutritious once animals start eating them positive feedback from nutrients in the weeds encourages them to continue to eat weeds. In addition some weeds, thistles for example, are just hard to harvest. The training process encourages them to learn to eat the weed.

Are there health issues associated with eating weeds?

To date, no trained weed eaters have suffered weed-related illnesses or injuries. Animals breed and gain weight at or better than expected rates. Of course this is because you have to be careful about choosing which weeds to train animals to eat. Remember that there are some weeds that can cause problems and you should never train a cow to eat those weeds. Always best to be safe than sorry.

Do I have to retrain my cows every year?

No. Research shows that ruminants learn quickly about foods and remember them for years. Once your animals are trained they are trained for life. Young animals learn from mom and peers, and the same goes for older animals in that they can learn from their offspring and herd mates.

What are the economic benefits of teaching cows to eat weeds?

  1. You reduce costs for herbicides and for the labor and equipment to apply them. Research indicates that farmers and ranchers who reduce their costs are always more successful.
  2. You increase the amount of forage available to your animals and you improve pasture utilization. This means you may not have to lease as much pasture, you may be able to extend your grazing season, or you may be able to run more animals, all depending on your operation and goals.
  3. Your animals may gain weight faster thanks to the higher protein value of weeds vs. many traditional types of forage.