Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation, and Ecosystem Management (BEHAVE)


Linking Herbivore Experience, Varied Diets, and Plant Biochemical Diversity

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Small Ruminant Research







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We contend diets and habitats that allow animals to select among alternatives enable individuals to better meet needs for nutrients and to better cope with toxins. All plants contain toxins, and the amount of toxin an animal can ingest depends on the kinds and amounts of nutrients and toxins in the forages on offer. Nutrients and toxins both cause animals to satiate, and excesses of nutrients, nutrient imbalances, and toxins all limit food intake. Thus, individuals can better meet their needs for nutrients and regulate their intake of toxins when offered a variety of foods that differ in nutrients and toxins than when constrained to a single food, even if the food is “nutritionally balanced”. Food intake and preference also depend on differences in how individual animals are built morphologically and how they function physiologically, and marked variation is common even among closely related animals in needs for nutrients and abilities to cope with toxins. Transient food aversions compound the inefficiency of single-food diets—whether in confinement, on pastures, or on rangelands—by depressing intake among individual animals, even if they are suited “on average” to that nutrient or toxin profile. Thus, feeding and grazing practices that allow producers to capitalize on the individuality of animals are likely to improve performance of the herd by enabling the uniqueness of individuals to become manifest. Finally, past experiences play a crucial role in an animal’s propensity to learn to eat different foods. When herbivores are allowed to eat only the most preferred plants, they are not likely to learn to mix foods high in nutrients with foods that contain toxins. Conversely, herbivores encouraged to eat all plants in an area are more likely to learn to eat mixes of plants that mitigate toxicity. Experienced animals who have learned to eat a variety of foods that differ in nutrients and toxins do so even when nutritious alternatives are available, whereas naive animals familiar only with the nutritious alternatives eat only that subset of familiar foods. Different systems of management alter how animals forage. Continuous grazing at low stock densities encourages selectivity and reduces diet and habitat breadth, whereas short-duration grazing at high stock densities increases diet and habitat breadth. Thus, what was traditionally considered proper grazing management—rotational grazing at low stock densities—may have trained generations of livestock to “eat the best and leave the rest” thus inadvertently accelerating a decline in biodiversity and an increase in the abundance of less desirable plant species.


Originally published by Elsevier. Publisher's full text, PDF, and abstract available through remote link.