Learning and Memory in Grazing Livestock Application to Diet Selection
Society for Range Management
Launchbaugh, K.L. & Provenza, F.D. (2008). Learning and Memory in Grazing Livestock Application to Diet Selection. Rangelands, 13(5), 242-244.
When you think of intelligent animals, a cow or sheep is probably not the first creature that comes to mind. With respect to grazing, however, livestock are smart. Researchers consistently report that livestock select diets more nutritious than if they foraged at random (Arnold and Dudzinski 1978). However, scientists disagree on how livestock know which foods are nutritious or toxic. Some traditional theories suggest that animals are born knowing what to eat and do not need specific learning experience. These theories suggest that diet selection is inflexible and stereotypic.
Range scientists have been reluctant to replace these traditional theories with concepts that depend upon animal learning and experience. However, many successful management practices which ranchers have been using for decades are based on the assumptions that livestock learn and remember the plants they eat. For example, many ranchers select replacement heifers from their own herd because they "know" the range better than heifers purchased from outside herds. Most managers realize that livestock deaths from poisonous plants generally increase when animals are not familiar with a particular plant, such as when livestock graze new pastures. A few savvy ranchers even wean animals on the same feed used for creep feeding because the calves seem to "recognize" the feed, eat more of it, and gain weight more quickly.