The dandelions disappeared as my cattle munched their way across the pasture. They snatched up the yellow flowers, which they seemed to prefer over the tall, green grass. Within hours the dandelions had been all eaten up.
Even though our cattle are grass-fed, a more appropriate description might be grass-and-weed-fed. A weed is defined as an undesirable plant, but as soon as a cow is willing to eat it, it's no longer a weed. Cattle don't distinguish; if it tastes good, they'll eat it. But cattle can't be counted on to experiment.
Just like humans, they learn their eating behaviors. Calves watch what Mom eats. If she eats hay, they will; if she munches on apples, they will; if she eats dandelions, they will. As they grow, cattle will mimic the eating habits of their pasture-mates. Teach a few cattle to eat milkweed, and soon the others will, too.
The question is; how to teach them to eat weeds. Do I go out in the pasture and eat a dandelion in front of a cow? Not necessary.
Kathy Voth, a scientist and pasture guru, explains in her book that there is a better way. In "Cows Eat Weeds; How to Turn Your Cows Into Weed Managers," Voth writes that "cows avoid weeds because they always have, not because weeds are bad for them." In fact, many weeds are nutritious. For example, Canada thistle, pigweed and ragweed contain 15 to 20 percent protein, while typical grasses are only 2 to 11 percent protein.
Voth says, "The hardest thing about training a cow to eat a weed is changing our minds" – to think of weeds as beneficial.
Did you know that U.S. farmers and ranchers spend about $5 billion every year trying to poison pasture and rangeland weeds, but weed populations expand their territory by about 14 percent each year – adding up to an area the size of Delaware? So if weed killer isn't the answer, maybe hungry cows are.
Voth outlines three steps for changing the eating habits of your cattle:
1. Make sure your target weed is safe to eat.
2. Choose a manageable number of young, healthy females.
3. Give the trainees familiar foods for four days, and on the fifth day start feeding them weeds.
Several years ago, I successfully followed these steps, and even though most of the cows in that group are gone, their good eating habits have been passed down to their descendants and out to their pasture-mates. Put my cows in a field of milkweed, and they will pluck the leaves off and leave the stems to die, eventually killing the root system.
Parents of picky eaters will be reading this with envy. But until there's a serious broccoli infestation of my pastures, I'll just leave that problem to someone else.
Who needs pesticides when cattle do the job better? They love their work; eating. As long as the salad bar is full, they don't complain, even providing fertilizer for next year's crop. Who needs pesticides when cows can get the job done?
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Kathy Voth also publishes an online magazine: “On Pasture” at https://onpasture.com/. Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm (www.milessmithfarm.com), where she raises and sells pastured pork, lamb, eggs and grassfed beef. She can be reached at email@example.com.