Weed Training

I have honorarily earned the title of “Teacher” this summer.  My so-called students are a herd of 50 yearling heifers and I am trying to get them to eat Canada Thistle. 


The teaching started by placing short black barrels in their pasture, approximately one for every three cows to create competition.  These barrels are supposed to pique their curiosity because they cannot see what is in them.  So what does a curious heifer do?  They stick their heads in the barrels. 

Once they know there is something tasty in the barrels they are more likely to keep coming back.  For five days each morning I fed them a different tasty treat in these barrels to condition them to the fact that unfamiliar foods can be good.  On the sixth day I mixed thistles in with a food that they have previously tried and liked.  Initially the heifers crowded around the barrels to see what was new, and when they stuck their heads in and encountered a pokey food they did not seem so excited.  Gradually they stuck their heads back in and started gobbling up the feed that was mixed with the thistles.  This was good because even if they weren’t trying to eat the thistles they were bound to put them in their mouths at some point if they were licking around the barrels.  Also, the other cows that couldn’t fit their heads in the barrels got curious and pushed their way to the barrels so they could try too.  Eventually I caught a few cows with thistles hanging out of their mouths. 

Luke went back to check out the barrels later in the afternoon and they were all licked clean!  Because of this great success we decided to give them only thistles the seventh day instead of mixing them with feed again.  Once again, when the cows felt something pokey they weren’t so excited.  Very few were eating them when I left to go do other chores.  But Luke checked the barrels again that evening and saw that they were pretty well cleaned up, so we called it a success.

The same group of heifers were moved to a new pasture that had a high buckbrush, or western snowberry, population so Luke decided we needed to try to get them to eat that as well since the training was so fresh in their minds. 

On the first day I took the barrels out and put corn in them just to get them used to the idea of coming to the barrels again.  However, they didn’t come to greet me when I took the barrels in, so I was a little worried they wouldn’t find them.  But the next day the corn had been partially eaten so I put their first serving of buckbrush in the barrels with a little bit of some different feed.  Once again they didn’t come see what was in the barrels right away, so after a little while I left.  The second say I saw that there was most of the buckbrush cleaned up, but some was still in the barrels.  So I emptied the barrels and put more weeds and a little less feed in them.  That day I cut weeds right next to the barrels in the pasture they were in.  I figured it might get them to come and see what was in the barrels. 

The last morning the weeds were mostly cleaned up again so I decided to cut more weeds near the barrels because the cows weren’t anywhere nearby.  Turns out that partway through cutting I looked up to see the whole herd moving my way.  Most of them checked out the barrels, and when they realized nothing was in them they came and looked at me while I was cutting.  They walked right into the patch of buckbrush that I was cutting in and started eating the grass that was growing between the shrubs.  I was excited the day before when I saw that there had been some trampling in the buckbrush patches, but then I realized that they were probably eating the grass and not the buckbrush.  Eventually they lost interest in me and the herd moved on to a greener part of the pasture.  When I finished I put the weeds in the barrels and hoped they would come back.  Turns out they did come back, but more was left in the barrels than we would have liked to see.  Maybe the buckbrush was not a success. 

A few weeks ago we moved the heifers into a new pasture that has plenty of maturing thistles in it, but they are not eating them.  It might be because it has been a while since the training, or maybe because these thistles are older and bigger than the ones I harvested for them when I trained them.  So the barrels have been moved yet again to see if we can reintroduce them to the pokey Canadian Thistle.