Thistle Treats

Growing up on a Vermont dairy farm, with generations of conventional farming in my background, I wouldn’t have thought that now, almost 20 years into owning Under Orion Farm, I’d be trying to teach my livestock how to eat weeds. But last week found me at a pasture walk at Kate Scarlett and Rob McCloud’s Windhorse Farm in East Hardwick listening to Kathy Voth from Colorado talk about that very thing. She says you can teach cows to eat weeds and like it.

Kathy Voth at the pasture walk on Windhorse Farm

Kathy refers to the process as “opening up the cow’s mind” – which I admit sounded, and still sounds, a little silly to me. But, since 2004 Kathy has been researching eating habits of cattle and sheep. She contends that in 10 days you can have any herd of cows eating any toxin-free weed that you choose. She accompanied this statement with a very well put together Powerpoint presentation, a lot of research data, and convincing videos. She’s worked with herds all over the country, from pastures of 5 acres to 5,000 acres in size.

This presentation was one of the summer’s Pasture Walks presented by the Vermont Pasture Network. I chose to join the approximately 20 participants at Windhorse after a call from Rachel Gilker, who coordinates the Vermont Pasture Program, and has been working with me coming up with a grazing plan for Under Orion Farm. The goal for the farm with this plan is more healthy, productive pastures, higher rotation rate, and more nutrients for the pasture coming from the animals – in the future, I’d like to bring more of my hay fields into grazing too. Kathy’s methods could help.

Pasture Walk Pasture

Right now, when I look at my pastures I see the grass eaten down very low, and I see buttercups, milk weeds, and thistles sticking up all over. I have to brush hog these weeds down every year before they take over more of the pasture’s grasses. If my cows could eat all the plants they’re now leaving in the pasture, that would save me a lot of work going back to clean up after they’ve gone through.

Another advantage of cows eating weeds that I hadn’t realized before the Pasture Walk is that the nutritional value in these weed species is oftentimes much greater than the pasture grass. For example, thistle has about 18%-21% protein while the traditional pasture grass has 7%-10%. Thistle has most often been compared to Alfalfa which runs 15%-20%. According to Kathy, it is the cows favorite weed and easy to train with.

Kathy’s process is relatively simple, teaching the cows to find the weeds interesting and enjoy their taste. She contends that there’s no instinct in cows eating, it’s all based on what they learn from their mothers and their peers. Below I’ve put together pictures of my attempts at her plan and you can also read about it on her website.

Raising beef is a good complement to Under Orion Farm. Not only does it keep the pastures chewed down and extra nutrients put back onto the fields, it’s an added revenue source and food for my freezer. We currently sell a limited amount of beef out of our freezer, right on the farm, and through Dancing Carrot Farm in their traveling farmstand.

Me, Determined To Feed My Cows Thistle

I’m into day four of trying to get my Angus to eat thistle. They’re really enjoying the daily ritual of treats but have yet to take to the weeds. So at this point what I’ve got is a new friendship with the mother Angus. . . and I’ll have to let you know when they start enjoying those thistles!

Pictures From My Pasture

Me & a Thistle - This is what I want the Cows to eatTwice a day I bring a treat to a group of two mothers and their offspringI start with grains that they already think are a "treat"

And the familiar treats get them interested in what I'm bringing

Then I mix it up by adding in the weeds I want them to eat. . . and one of the days I don't bring them anything at all in the buckets

If this trick works, the cows get interested in eating milk weeds and thistles

And if the cows enjoy the weeds - I won't have to do the work of removing them!The End