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Principles of animal behavior can be leveraged to effectively utilize feed sources

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper – Animals can be trained to do things they don’t normally, according to Beth Burritt, Utah State Extension area rangeland agent.

“Producers started asking how animals know what to eat and why, so research was conducted on animal behavior,” Burritt said. “The whole idea behind animal behavior research was on whether animals can be trained to use the rangeland instead of trying to change the rangeland to fit the animals.”

Burritt discussed a few principles of animal behavior, including feed factors, variety and supplements and provided examples of how producers can apply animal behavior principles to benefit their operations.

Feed factors

She mentioned animals have a fear of novel foods because they’re neophobic, or afraid of new things.

“Animals are afraid of novel foods. They break food into two groups, novel and familiar. Animals tend to avoid novel foods, while familiar foods they learned to eat from their mothers are their go-to,” she said.

Burritt mentioned they discovered animals can be fed novel foods, but it takes time. In one study, sheep were fed rice, which is nutritious and novel, and over time, their consumption of the feed increased.

“Animals also like certain foods because they simply taste good. Sometimes, they don’t like the taste but they may like it later on as a result of feedback,” she added, noting palatability depends on feedback from nutrients and toxins.

Burritt stated nutrients increase palatability, and toxins decrease palatability. She described a study where sheep were fed different types of feed, then given a capsule of lithium chloride to induce nausea.

“After the sheep were given the lithium chloride, they would avoid the food eaten before the treatment. The closer the food and lithium chloride were taken together, the more the sheep would avoid the associated feed, showing animals have an automatic response when it comes to food and illness,” she explained.

Variety and supplements

Burritt stated animals prefer to eat a variety of foods because it allows them to meet their individual needs and limits toxicity problems.

“Animals don’t eat the same amount of anything everyday. So if a cow eats feed high in energy, they will then go and find feed high in protein to balance their nutrition,” she said.

In terms of toxins, a variety of feed allows animals to limit the amount of toxins they eat, and most toxins simply set intake limits, forcing animals to eat a variety of feed, Burritt explained.

“Most of the time, when animals die of poisoning, it’s due to human error,” she added, mentioning supplements have been found to help animals eat feedstuff that contain toxins.

“There has been a lot of effort put into getting animals to eat sagebrush because there is a lot of it. Studies have found animals that were supplemented ate more sagebrush than animals not supplemented,” she stated. “They need the supplemental nutrients to detoxify the toxins in sagebrush and for most toxins.”


Burritt mentioned, using the principles of animal behavior, producers can train their livestock, which can help them better manage their rangelands and pastures.

One example she discussed was a rancher who wanted to keep his cattle out of the lower areas and riparian zones of the rangeland.

“To keep the cattle out of the lower areas, the rancher taught his cattle to graze the ridges and higher spots first before going down to the riparian areas,” she said. “Babies prefer the habits of their mothers, so the rancher herded the cows and calves together using low stress handling into the higher areas.”

The cows learned to stay on the ridges and taught their calves to do the same, Burritt noted, saying, “The producer culled the cows that refused to learn and was patient because it takes time to change behavior.”

Another example Burritt examined was using low moisture molasses blocks to improve cattle distribution.

“For producers who don’t like herding, this is nice because molasses blocks will attract the cattle to certain areas and keep them there,” she stated. “The cattle do need to experience what the blocks are, so they won’t avoid them.”

Burritt also mentioned an example where a Montana rancher realized his cattle grazed only the most palatable feed and nothing else.

“Over the years, it’s possible producers have taught cattle to eat the best and leave the rest,” she said. “The question is, can we teach them to mix the best with the rest?”

She explained the Montana rancher identified a few types of feed the cattle didn’t graze and fenced the cattle into the area where those species were prevalent until everything was eaten.

  “Producers can use this technique to graze under-utilized rangeland or pastures, but I would suggest using supplements to help the cattle adjust to the new feed or rotational grazing to force the cattle to eat certain plants,” Burritt noted.

In the end, the rancher’s cattle did start to graze more of the plants they usually ignored, she said, adding, “Producers benefit from understanding and utilizing the principles of animal behavior.”

Beth Burritt presented a workshop “Animal Behavioral Management” at the 2017 Wyoming Natural Resources Rendezvous in Casper on Nov. 27.

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

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