Monday, September 29, 2008


Maybe you’ve seen a field where cows have grazed, carefully eating around the Canadian thistles so that they stand out like trees in a meadow. Many a rancher and farmer has wished their cow’s priorities were reversed so the thistles went down the bovine gullets first. Of course, women know a lot about this stuff because they themselves have had to convert their own diets for health or weight loss and because they are usually the ones who must get the kids to eat their spinach. So it’s not surprising that Kathy Voth was the one to figure out how to make cows eat weeds.

Appropriately making her home in Loveland, CO, Voth figured out her techniques while studying animal behavior at the Bureau of Land Management at Utah State University. In fact, she began with goats but moved to cows when working with the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, MT. This ranch is a “working” ranch, not a Disneyland. The project targeted thistles, knapweeds and mustards.

Observing the rule ignored by many (“first do no damage”) Voth analyzed the weeds to make sure they weren’t toxic. This is not as easy as it sounds since plants might be toxic in the spring but not when fully grown towards fall or vice versa. Surprisingly, thistles have the same nutritional values as alfalfa! And the cows don’t seem to mind the prickles. From a human point of view, cows-as-herbicides leave no toxic chemical residue as spraying would. We are only beginning to realize the damage done by the tweaked chemicals of herbicides, esp. when spread over the huge acreages of Montana wheat farms.

Turns out, as Voss proved in Madison County, Montana, recently, bison can also be taught to eat weeds. So what can she teach people buffaloed by the diets of their own kids? First, a nutrition feedback loop makes a cow’s body want what it needs. (A universal dynamic in humans that gets suppressed because advertising and lack of experience over-rides our subtle impulses.) They lose interest in empty calories and crave whatever is missing. This is why nutrition blocks, maybe with salt, interest cows so much. Humans with deficits, maybe a pregnant woman missing a specific element, have been known to eat dirt that contains the element.

As studies of the hippocampus show in the brains of all mammals -- and the cow is the absolute max in terms of mammals defined by producing milk -- the hippocampus wants to keep things the same. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” It's safer to eat what we ate last time, since we didn't keel over. But the element of safety is balanced by an interest in new things, a bit of experiment and variety. The old thing might not always be available.

Training begins when Voth sneaks cubed alfalfa, wheat bran and rolled corn into the cow’s usual rations, just like a mom putting bits of broccoli and carrots into the mac and cheese. At first eating new things almost by accident, the cows begin to like it. The calves and younger cows are the first to find the novelty more interesting, but when the other cows see the new food being eaten with a certain amount of relish, they try it, too.

After four days of this, on the fifth day the cows are fed a little late so their appetites are strong and this time there are weeds in the “casserole.” On the third day after this, weeds are the whole meal for the day. Then they go to the field where the weeds are actually growing to tackle the problem of how to eat a tall thistle instead of short grass. Maybe you’ve noticed that cows can wrap their tongues around stuff and yank it out of the ground. Works good on thistles.

What’s interesting is that once one batch of cows has been trained, untrained cows who see what they are eating will imitate them and end up eating weeds just like the trained cows. You can tell your kid to eat raw carrots with no effect but if he sees another kid he likes eating raw carrots, the struggle is over! Peer demonstrations work. (Advertisers know this. But those peers are PAID to pretend that’s what they eat.)

There’s a website for this strategy: You can buy a DVD to teach yourself how to teach your cows. It doesn’t work on horses, only on ruminants whose series of stomachs are capable of digesting weeds pretty efficiently.

But goats, clever animals that they are, take right to the project and have been used for a while, especially in places where brush needs to be kept down as a fire preventative. Sometimes on the way to Helena one can see the goat herd on the Sieben Ranch/Baucus Ranch -- once the Malcolm Clarke ranch. There are hundreds of goats, flowing in a carpet over the hillsides. Goats are famous for eating anything, though I doubt any of them ever eat tin cans as they do in cartoons. Too bad.

This strategy of using what is already there by simply doing a bit of introduction and encouragement is increasingly attracting attention and rewarding those who figure it out. This is “organic” (my favorite word since the Fifties when I learned it in high school) as opposed to mechanical, which requires oversight and maintenance, something imposed rather than unfolding. Every time the Bioneers come on Yellowstone Public Radio I have to go do something else for a while because otherwise I get totally distracted away from my own goals. ( It’s all so beautiful and seductive that it’s near-religious. A person can’t do EVERYTHING and the bio-engineers are doing so much that I’ll just stand back and watch from enough of a distance to keep from being sucked in. But I heartily hope they convert the world. Right now the weeds seem to be winning while the people die of cancer. If a cow can turn it around, it wouldn’t surprise a Norseman or a Masai.

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