A better understanding of grazing animal behaviour could make ranching profitable again, says Fred Provenza, a professor from Utah State University.
“I’m not a person who hates fossil fuels, I like them. But we’ve used them as a crutch,” said Provenza.
“It’s been great, but it’s costly to do that. So, we have to think about how natural systems work, and if we can start to work in that way.”
The acclaimed rangeland scientist recently conducted a 2.5-day seminar here entitled “Foraging Behaviour: Managing to Survive in a World of Change.”
Weaning cattle and humans away from a dependency on fossil fuels doesn’t mean a return to calloused hands, pitchforks, sweep rakes and overshot stackers, however.
By learning more about why ruminants eat what they eat and do what they do, ranchers would be able to select for genetics and behaviours in their animals that allow them to extend the grazing season with the goal of permanently parking their tractors and balers.
But along with a rethink of land use strategies, ranchers and their cattle must change their habits and behaviour. It’s possible, he added, but the first few years are often painful, with lower weight gains and diminished reproductive success.
He noted that a large Mormonowned ranch in Utah – located in a cold, snowy “devil” of a place – identified the cost of winter feeding as their biggest money loser.
They eventually eliminated winter feeding in a three-year process that nearly drove the ranch manager – a devout Mormon – to drink. But eventually they made the transition, said Provenza.
“They sold all the haying equipment and developed a cattle herd and a way of working on their landscape that allowed them to winter out,” he said.
“Even if you think it’s impossible, just let your mind go there. ‘How would I use this whole place if I was going to graze year round?’ That’s all about changes in behaviour of people and cattle.”
Provenza says revious generations of cattle breeders concentrated on genetic improvements to the exclusion of all other factors. That led to a shift away from grass-based production to confined, feedlot finishing, and a “culture” of soft, pampered animals that depend on constant human intervention to survive. But without cheap grains and fossil fuel, that model quickly goes to pieces.
Now, trends are shifting towards lower-cost production systems, and developing animals and behaviours that can make such strategies work.
“It’s never the genes in isolation,” said Provenza.
“It’s not just about selecting a genotype that works in my environment. It’s how the gene is expressed in the environment where you want the animal to produce that results in local adaptation. That leads to reduced dependence on fossil fuel.”
Already, there is a lot of evidence that grazing behaviour is strongly influenced by inter-generational learning from mother to offspring, and that aversions to certain plants such as leafy spurge can be overcome via training.
For example, the old strategy of starving animals until they eat less-palatable species in desperation is ineffective. Instead, studies have found that properly supplemented animals consume more of such plants because they are better equipped nutritionally to handle plant-borne toxins that create aversions in the first place.
“There are compounds in plants that probably could play as important a role as Ivomec,” he said.
Provenza noted how over the course of his career, land managers have changed their philosophy from trying to muster huge resources in the form of money, fuel, machinery and labour to looking at cheaper alternatives such as altering animal behaviour.
“After World War Two, fossil fuels were inexpensive. On these extensive rangelands where I worked they were doing phenomenally huge kinds of projects. Nobody even thinks of that now. It’s just beyond the realm of possibility for economic and environmental reasons,” he said.
“In those days it was, ‘Let’s change the range to suit the animals.’ Now I’m saying ‘Let’s think about having our animals continually adapt to what’s there.’”