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Research shows early experiences result in lifetime food preferences

Written by Heather Hamilton

Lusk — “For creatures to be locally adapted means possessing the anatomical and physiological adaptations and behavioral knowledge that enable survival in a particular environment,” stated Dr. Fred Provenza while presenting an animal grazing behavior workshop in Lusk Feb. 2.
“While the need for nutrients and a place to live are inherent, which foods to eat and where to live rely hugely on learned parts of behavior,” Provenza explained. “Experiences early in life result in preferences in a wide sweep of creatures, not just domestic animals.”
“Many species are social creatures and mom becomes an important transgenerational link that provides stability. Offspring learn from ancestors through the mother. It builds a knowledge base in the group,” said Provenza.
The young add creativity by exploring the unknown. This makes young creatures great to work with when re-training herds. The young often introduce acquisition of new behaviors, he explained.
An example occurred in Washington State where a sheep producer contracted grazing in a forest. The idea was to have sheep eat the undergrowth around young Douglas fir trees to reduce moisture and sunlight competition. For three years it worked very well.
Then came the year the lambs, for whatever reason, started to eat the flush of new growth on the trees. The behavior quickly spread from lamb to lamb and then it spread to the mothers. By the end of the season the sheep had cleaned all the new growth off the trees. The following year it was a new set of lambs, but they were being trained by the ewes to eat the new growth at that point. “It goes from the young to the mom to become part of the system,” said Provenza.
“Through experiences that start in-utero and during early life, young animals learn what and what not to eat and where and where not to go and they remember for life,” stated Provenza. “What mothers eat during pregnancy is transferred to the young through the amniotic fluid. Flavors in the diet get into mom’s milk and prepare young animals for what they will later encounter in the environment in which they are born, reared and live life.”
Provenza provided an example of a recent study where goats were fed oregano during pregnancy. Their kids ate much higher levels of oregano-flavored foods immediately after birth than other flavored foods. The oregano was a flavor they were already exposed to and comfortable with.
These experiences through the mother help young become familiar with foods. The next important step, according to Provenza, is for them to recognize something they don’t know and sample it cautiously. When doing this, animals typically don’t eat a lot at first. They familiarize themselves with it slowly to allow their bodies to make adaptations to whatever the new food is.
To demonstrate this Provenza described a study where animals had been fed barley, oats, alfalfa and corn all their life. Rye was added for a few days prior to the trial being conducted. On the first day of the trial all five foods were fed. After eating the animals were given a mild toxin. The following day they avoided rye, but intake of the other four foods didn’t decrease. Rye was the suspect because it was still a novelty. “This is a very functional way animals operate in an environment,” said Provenza.
Experiences early in life also increase intake of poorly nutritious foods and foods high in secondary compounds. For example, sheep raised on poor quality grass forages will have higher intake levels and will better utilize similar forages throughout life than those raised on higher quality forages. This is an important concept when considering that how much animals eat is directly related to performance.
Lambs exposed to saltbrush in-utero handle a salt-load better than lambs from mothers on pasture. They excrete salt faster, drink less water and maintain higher intakes when eating saltbrush.
A study conducted in Israel compared two breeds of goats and their preference differences. The Damascus goats preferred to eat lower quality, high-tannin browse, while the Mamber goats didn’t care for high-tannin browse. The question was whether the difference in taste was a result of the two different breeds.
A cross-fostering study was conducted where mothers of one breed raised kids from the other breed. The results found that preference was totally a function of experience. The kids’ behavior and performance was based on how they were raised and not on what breed they were.
Nurturing early in life influences an animal’s behavior for life. These behaviors go beyond breeds to the genetic level. Environment can have an effect on which genes are expressed and to what degree. Knowing this can result in more efficient management choices with more desirable outcomes when working with livestock and landscapes.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.