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Animal behavior principles can help manage livestock

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper – “Ever wondered why animals like eating certain foods, or wonder if they could be trained to eat something else?” asked Beth Burritt, Utah State Area Rangeland Extension agent, during the Progressive Resource Manager Forum at the Wyoming Natural Resources Rendezvous on Nov. 27.

She presented several basic principles of animal behavior, which producers can use to train livestock to eat weeds or increase grazing in upland areas and more.


The main principle of animal behavior is behavior depends on consequences, according to Burritt.

“If a behavior is positive, the chances an animal will engage in the behavior again increases. On the other hand, if the consequence is negative, like making an animal sick, the likelihood an animal will engage in the behavior again decreases,” Burritt explained.

She said most behaviors are learned, so animals can be trained to do things most people don’t think they can do.

“I’d like to tell ranchers that training is simple, but when it’s applied to different landscapes it can be more complicated,” added Burritt.

She noted most behavioral research in the last 20 years was done in pens, which was difficult to apply to the range, but there are a few basic principles producers can use to train their livestock on rangelands and other landscapes.

Early experience

The first principle states early experience matters the most, according to Burritt, who said, “Animals learn throughout their lives, but are better at learning when they’re very young.”

One example of animals learning at a young age she discussed was a study where two groups of lambs were exposed to wheat at six weeks old and 34 months old. The first group of lambs was exposed while with their mother and the other group was exposed alone.

“Lambs exposed at six weeks old with their mothers ate nine times more wheat when exposed at 34 months old,” Burritt stated. “Not only did the lambs learn quickly, they also remembered the wheat because they didn’t see any wheat between six weeks and 34 months.”

She discussed another study, which proved experience matters, where cows were fed ammoniated straw mixed with alfalfa hay to determine if the practive could cut winter feed costs. The problem was half of the cows performed well and the other half didn’t.

“It was discovered 16 of the cows had been fed ammoniated straw as calves and the other 16 had not. The only difference was the first group had previous experience with ammoniated straw,” Burritt noted, adding, “Where animals come from makes a difference, and the tougher the terrain, the more experience matters.”

She also said experience can cause changes in animal’s bodies, like brain function and structure, and liver detoxification capacity, and can affect rumen size and amount of papilla,which helps absorb nutrients.

Mothers and eating

Burritt stated animals have to learn how to eat, and they learn how and what to eat from their mothers.

“Baby animals prefer the habitats of their mothers, who teach them what to eat, and they learn the most from their mothers,” noted Burritt.

She gave an example of why it’s important for animals to learn how to eat. In one study, two groups of goats were sent out to graze on blackbrush, a thorny shrub. One group of goats was raised on alfalfa pellets and had never grazed before, while the other group had grazed on blackbrush with their mothers.

“The first group had trouble eating blackbrush, and their bites per minute plateaued at a certain point. The other group with experience continually increased their bites per minute and had no trouble with blackbrush because it was familiar,” stated Burritt.


Applying animal behavioral principles has been successful, according to Burritt, who mentioned Kathy Voth, Livestock for Landscapes owner and her weed-eating program.

Voth worked for the Bureau of Land Management, and she said, based on the principles of animal behavior, cows could be taught to eat weeds, Burritt stated.

Voth then took all the behavioral principles and created a training program committed to teaching cows how to eat weeds.

“One of the first weeds Kathy worked with was Canada thistle. She also made sure molasses blocks were available to counteract possible nitrate poisoning from the weeds,” Burritt said.

Voth tends to work with heifers because once taught to eat weeds they will teach their calves to eat weeds, mentioned Burritt.

“Calves learn best from their moms but will pass the behavior throughout the herd, as well,” she stated.

Burritt also said Voth builds on how cows learn by reducing the fear of novel foods by mixing the familiar with the novel. Voth starts the cows in small pastures with the targeted weed and a variety of other forages to encourage cows to eat the target weed.

“Voth has trained hundreds of cows on rangelands using her program, and has created the Livestock for Landscapes project, which offers a lot of advice and insights,” Burritt stated.

“The question isn’t do animals learn. The question is whether producers want to be a part of the process,” she concluded.

Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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