Provenza looks at behavior linkage to dietsWritten by Rebecca Colnar Mott
“Why do animals eat a variety of food?” Provenza asked. “Because nature sets limits on primary and secondary compounds in plants, so the animal needs to eat a certain amount of that plant to get the nutrition its body knows it needs. Too much of a secondary or even a primary compound can be toxic.”
The primary compounds include energy, protein and minerals your body gets from the plant. The secondary compounds include the phytochemicals: phenolics, alkaloids and terpenes. Secondary compounds are actually the ones that set the limit of how much you can eat of them. When a human – or a herbivore – eats three to five foods, they’re getting thousands of phytochemicals.
Flavor feedback – the benefits derived after eating something – plays a huge role in what you eat. Feedback doesn’t just mean taste.
“Flavor feedback interactions involve phytochemicals interacting with your cells and organ systems, really all systems of the body,” Provenza says. “When they are allowed to graze on a variety of forages, animals mix and match different foods. Cattle, sheep and goats are just like you – they like variety in their diets. You’d get tired eating the same thing day after day, and so do they.”
The researcher strongly believes that body wisdom – what your body instinctively knows it needs – exists in herbivores and humans. He explains that when your body reaches satiety, it leads to deep contentment, which in return leads to a lack of cravings that causes overeating. He adds that landscapes not only serve as a nutrition center for animals, but also can act as a pharmacy.
Provenza says pre-natal and natal experiences affect food and habitat preferences.
“We’ve discovered that the young in utero learn about diets in their last three months before being born. Their mother serves as a model that prepares the body to deal with foods that creatures might encounter,” he says. “After birth, the calf or lamb continues to learn preferences for food by following his mother around.”
He explains that if given a choice, animals will eat a variety to keep their bodies content.
“We found at a dairy if you feed a high-protein ration in the barn, when the cow goes out, she’ll avoid clover and new growth,” he said. “If you drop the protein in the barn, then she’ll be out looking for that clover and new growth.”
Since everyone in the audience was intrigued about teaching cattle and sheep to eat sagebrush, Provenza spent time discussing what he has seen work.
“We started began working on this project through a group I formed with other researchers and animal behaviorists called BEHAVE. BEHAVE is a research and outreach program that explores the principles of animal behavior. Their primary focus is on diet and habitat selection of livestock. The sagebrush steppe is a crucial habitat for ecosystems, but the lack of both fire and spring grazing have negatively affected sagebrush in this part of the west,” Provenza explained. “An increase in sagebrush means a decrease in herbs and other plants. Fewer plants mean less animal diversity, which leads to a decrease in nitrogen. That leads to an increase in lignin and terpenoids which means the rate of plant decomposition decreases.”
Provenza, who was a professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University from 1982 to 2009, says that using sheep and cattle to rejuvenate that sagebrush steppe saves ranchers money in several ways. They don’t need to spend money on expensive chemicals to kill the sagebrush, and they can use it to supplement their winter grazing program. Livestock can learn to graze sagebrush is the late fall and winter, when the terpene level is at the lowest.
Working with rancher Agee Smith on Cottonwood Ranch near Wells, Nev., researcher Chuck Peterson is working to get cattle to eat sagebrush. He began feeding cows in a sagebrush area high-quality hay and pellets high in protein and minerals.
“Our goal was to have the sagebrush serve as 30 percent of the winter forage,” Provenza said.
They first experimented by grinding up grass hay and sagebrush and getting the animals accustomed to it. Then they added a little more until they could see at well level the animals wouldn’t eat it. Next, they provided a high-protein hay on sagebrush areas, then began cutting back on the hay ration to encourage the animals to eat the sagebrush.
“There’s a definite learning curve, but if you get them on a supplement, like high protein hay, it’s not a negative experience for them to eat the sagebrush. The feedback is good because they’re getting protein, but the sagebrush is providing those secondary compounds they want,” he explains.
“Remember that cows grazing on the sagebrush in the winter are going to pass that off to their offspring in utero. That calf will be inclined to eat sagebrush as he matures,” Provenza adds.
“Getting livestock to eat sagebrush keeps it from being a costly nuisance to being a forage resource in the winter,” Provenza explains. “It benefits the landscape because songbirds will come back and use that sagebrush, and it will help hold snow in the winter.”
Interestingly, wildlife behavior can be changed, as well.
“We had one ranch that wanted to change the culture of ‘welfare elk.’” Provenza said. “We asked ourselves how we could wean elk off feed provided by the ranch and get them grazing on winter range.”
“First, we grazed cattle strategically in areas that the elk could use for the winter range. Then we provided supplemental energy and protein (hay) that enabled the herbivores to eat more sagebrush,” he continued. “We started the project in in 2004 and fed them in 2005 to get them onto the sagebrush. The only other time we fed was in 2010 when the snow crusted over and animals couldn’t get to any feed. Interestingly, many of the elk didn’t even know what to do with the provided feed, as they weren’t used to being fed, their culture had changed that much over five years.”
Provenza believes that grazing done right can build soil and increase the biodiversity of landscape. He strongly encourages ranchers to understand the important link that exists between soil, landscapes, animal and people, and for them to work within that link to make a better landscape for everyone.