Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why would we want to teach our animals to eat weeds? A Top Ten List

Last week we spent a  few days with beef, sheep and dairy farmers interested in learning more about how animals can be taught to expand their nutritional palates.  The farmers who came to the events were excited and engaged, and at all three farms we found animals eating some of the target weeds. 

Picking goldenrod for a live weed-eating demo.
As weed-eating trainer Kathy Voth says this process, "helps you feel comfortable with your animals' ability to make good choices."

As Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm in Huntington said, "I look at my pastures in a totally different way now".  Bruce and his interns Eleanor, Eli and Diane have been teaching their beef cattle to eat golden rod at a leased farm and plan to tackle Canada thistle at the home farm next.

Julie Wolcott of Green Wind Farm in Fairfield worked with her dairy heifers to each a variety of weeds they will find in the pasture, once they are turned out to begin grazing.  The weed-eating program has not only introduced them to a range of weeds from thistle to plaintain, but has also been an easy way to teach the heifers that grass and legumes are tasty and nutritious.  Typically, Julie observes that the cows lose weight when they first go out to pasture, as they adjust to the new food choices.  She is hoping they eat all of the plants more evenly and that the heifers' weight gain continues smoothly.  As Julie says, "This is easy!  Easier than I ever expected."

Jenn Colby of Howling Wolf Farm in East Randolph has been teaching her sheep to eat Canada thistle, but her flock has already enjoyed a varied diet.  Tops on the menu: wild chervil, wild parsnip, burdock and giant ragweed.  As Jenn says, "I haven't experienced the drought challenges that the farms around me have this year.  The sheep love the burdock and milkweed, which are growing back very quickly after grazing....much faster than the grass.  I don't think of weeds as weeds...I think of weeds as alternative forage!"

So...why should you consider teaching your animals to become weed managers?
  1. Weeds are nutritious and highly digestible
  2. Weeds are resilient in a changing environment
  3. Weeds maintain their quality longer than other forages
  4. Weeds take NO work to plant, fertilize or maintain
  5. Weeds have always been here...and likely always will be
  6. Controlling weeds mechanically or with chemical sprays is expensive, costly, and takes time
  7. It's quick and easy,  and teaching animals once means they will teach their herdmates for years
  8. Animals who eat weeds are healthy and grow well
  9. Farmers have better things to do than stress about old weeds (or new ones!)
  10. It's fun (we're not kidding)

To learn more about teaching livestock to eat alternative forages, visit or contact the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture's Pasture Program at

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