DOING away with the constant battle of altering country to produce more beef in favour of allowing livestock to choose their diets could be the key to the cattle industry’s future.
Cutting-edge animal behaviour research is making a pretty good case for what many producers would consider very unconventional thinking.
Dr Fred Provenza, former United States rancher and now professor emeritus at Utah State University, has been observing and researching grazing for 50 years. He has studied animal behaviour and consulted with stockmen and land managers around the world.
He will give the McClymont Lecture at the 2018 Animal Production conference in Wagga Wagga next week. He will also speak at the Australian Association of Ruminant Nutrition meetings during his visit to Australia.
Dr Provenza’s work has led him to the conclusion that monocultures designed to maximise pasture yields would be far better replaced by herds adapted to specific landscapes.
These herds could browse a smorgasbord of plants - they could even take care of weeds - and the intake of different compounds would not only allow for more profitable weight gains but far better maintenance of animal health and environmental health.
Indeed, a lack of diet diversity is so often leading to an over-reliance on commercial drugs and chemicals in beef systems, Dr Provenza believes.
“Whether herbivore or human, health ensues when cultures learn to combine biochemically rich foods into meals that nourish and satiate,” he said.
“Biochemically rich diets include not only energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins, but also a host of other compounds, such as phenolics, terpenes, and alkaloids, with nutritional, prophylactic and therapeutic benefits.”
A beef animal’s genes are not its entire destiny, according to Dr. Provenza.
“Animals are learning from conception on, and as that occurs, genes are switching on and off in ways that allow the whole genome to adapt to what’s happening,” he said.
“That changes form, function and behavior of animals, over generations creating animals that are locally adapted.”
What if animals could formulate their own rations from concentrates and forages? Conventional wisdom says they will eat too much grain and eventually perform poorly, says Dr Provenza.
Yet, in research studies when cattle and sheep were offered roughages and grain, they seldom ate too much grain if they were allowed to gradually increase intake of grain.
“When they can choose, calves and lambs balance intake of grain and roughages to prevent acidosis and they learn to select combinations of foods that best meet their needs for energy and protein,” he said.
“The same is true for bison.”
The work of leading grazing animal behaviour scientists is showing food intake may actually decrease if animals are allowed to self-select their own diets, thereby increasing performance while enhancing animal health and welfare.
“That was shown in a two-month study where calves allowed to choose among rolled barley, rolled corn, corn silage, and alfalfa hay ate less food but gained weight at the same rate as calves fed a total mixed ration made by grinding and mixing the four foods in proportions formulated to meet the nutritional needs of the ‘average’ animal,” Dr Provenza said.
“No two individuals ever selected the same diet, nor did they select a diet similar in proportions to the TMR, and no animal consistently chose the same foods from day to day.
“However, because animals offered a choice ate less, the daily cost per unit of weight gain was 24 per cent less for choice than for TMR.”
More generally, Dr Provenza’s work illustrates how diet links human and environmental health.
Diet diversity for herbivores influences the flavor and nutritive value of meat and dairy with important implications for the health of soil, plants, herbivores, humans, and climate, he said.
“The foods we eat reflect our relationships with landscapes, waterscapes, and airscapes, illustrating how palates link soil and plants with herbivores, humans, and global environments,” he said.