Young livestock learn about forages from their mothers

The American Fork Ranch is comprised of rolling hills and big plateaus at the base of the Crazy Mountains near Two Dot, Mont. They have been recognized for their environmental stewardship, and utilize an intensive grazing management program that moves cattle to new pasture every week. Photos by Annie Evjene, American Fork Ranch

It turns out “Mama knows best,” even when it comes to animals.

For cattle, grazing and feed consumption are both a natural instinct and a very learned behavior.

Jeff Mosley, Extension range management specialist for Montana State University, says the classic debate whether “nature” or “nurture” is more important is futile – genetics and experience are integrated and both affect animal behavior.

Although there is an abundance of information on cattle genetics, often learned behaviors are overlooked for their economic importance. However, as a calf is weaned, their experience with mama plays out in their ability to handle stressful situations such as a change of location, environment or feed source.

“We know from lots of research that livestock learn early and quickly and they remember for years,” says Mosley.

Mosley notes a research study on a set of drylot cows eating ammoniated straw. The cattle showed significant differences in consumption of the same straw – one half had been exposed to ammoniated straw with their mothers during their first three weeks of life, and one half had never seen straw. The cows were 5 to 7 years old so none of them had seen straw for five years – yet the cows who ate it as calves consumed more and had a higher body condition, produced more milk, lost less weight and bred back sooner.

A classic but continually referenced research study on sheep also has applications to cattle. Three groups of 6-week-old lambs were studied to examine learned behaviors from the ewe, in this case, their willingness to eat wheat. For one hour a day, for just five days, Group 1 lambs were exposed to wheat as a feed source on their own, Group 2 lambs were exposed to wheat with their mother at their side, and Group 3 lambs were a control group not exposed to wheat. Researchers tested all three groups when the lambs were 3 and 34 months of age. Lambs that had previously eaten wheat with their mothers ate over twice as much grain during both test phases compared to the other two groups.

“This shows the importance of the early imprinting period, and it can make a big difference in feed efficiency, profitability and reproduction,” says Mosley.

In the case of a bred cow, the feed she consumes is transferred in utero, so the flavors impact fetal programming on the calf. “Then when it’s born it gets reinforcement of that feed which is also transferred through the milk, but the calf also watches and observes and mimics what mom eats,” he adds.

Management practices that reduce the amount of stress experienced by livestock will increase individual animal performance. If stress can be reduced inexpensively, net return will almost certainly increase.

This evaluation can be critical when managing for replacement heifers.

Jed Evjene is manager of the American Fork Ranch in Two Dot, Mont., and has seen strong benefits from raising their own replacement heifers and treating them like the cow they will become from the day they are born.

In the fall they choose replacements at weaning time and then immediately turn them back on the range. “They don’t get any special treatment until we start feeding in late January or February,” says Evjene. “I think it makes them better cows. They spread out and get to work making a living, even as calves.”

Evjene says he sees higher conception rates among these calves as yearlings than the industry average, and attributes it to being out grazing. “Our preg testing rates are a lot higher than some people who keep them in and feed them pellets,” he says.

The American Fork Ranch has an intensive grazing system built on three groups of cattle. Each group moves to a new pasture every seven days from May through December, and won’t return to a pasture again for 45-50 days. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday a group of cattle is moved, which provides Evjene an opportunity to witness cattle behavior on a regular basis.

“We sort into the three groups with one group being two- and three-year olds, and two groups based on early and late calving,” says Evjene. “So the cows aren’t necessarily in the same rotation or location every year, but after two weeks, those cows can tell you if it’s a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. They see you coming and meet you at the gate.”

Evjene says when their replacement heifers enter the rotation they are familiar with it from grazing with their mothers. “When they get in to the cow herd they are so used to our system we don’t have to teach them,” he says. “I think it really contributes to their productivity.”

Although each ranch is different and not one solution fits all in terms of early exposure to lifelong stressors, Mosley notes it’s important to take time to think about the background of cattle placed into a new situation, especially purchased cattle that come from a different geographic location or management setting. Livestock in a new environment spend as much as 25 percent more time foraging but ingest 40 percent less food than animals raised in the environment, and transition is always tougher if livestock move from a “plush” environment such as irrigated pasture to a harsher environment.

“Take time to assess where your animals come from,” says Mosley. “The more stressful the move, the more you may benefit from ratcheting up management practices like spreading out feeding or supplement locations, breaking cattle into groups, reducing stocking density, or adding shelter.”

Mosely says a critical aspect of improving animal productivity and ranch operations – and in turn profitability – is having an open mind and considering new and different ways of doing things.

“Try to understand why livestock do what they do, and then use that understanding to improve livestock management,” he says. “The old time cowboys spent a lot of time looking at their animals, and a lot of that became incorporated in their daily practices.”