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Ranchers study behavior

Published on June 3, 2011 3:01AM

Last changed on July 1, 2011 10:39AM

Doug Warnock

Doug Warnock


For the Capital Press

One of the keys to successful management of livestock is understanding the behavior of grazing animals.

One of the best sources of information on animal behavior is Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management, or BEHAVE. It is a research and outreach program that seeks to understand the principles of animal behavior.

Fred Provenza, professor at Utah State University, is a recognized leader in this field of study and a founder of BEHAVE.

"Understanding the behavior of any creature is simple," he said. "Behavior is a function of its consequences. Favorable consequences increase and aversive consequences decrease the likelihood of a behavior."

He goes on to explain that consequences are the result of an individual creature's heredity, environment and social interactions.

Each individual inherits genetic directions that affect its behavior. These directed behavioral actions can be modified by the individual's environmental and social experiences. These experiences cause the individual to change and adapt its behavior. Behavior is the result of the consequences experienced.

Foraging alongside their mother helps young animals learn about the sources of water, shade and cover, as well as which plants are nutritious and which are toxic. As growing animals they interact with peers, which have an influence on their behavior. Thus, the young don't have to discover everything by themselves, but benefit from other animals' experiences.

The animal's body gives it information that is vital to survival. The digestive system and the nervous system interact with one another to provide feedback on a feed's effect on the body and its desirability. Thus, a memory is established that helps in future foraging.

When managers move animals to a new and unfamiliar environment, the animals must learn by trial and error. During this adjustment period, they are more subject to malnutrition, illness from toxic plants and predation. Research shows that animals new to an environment spend as much as 25 percent more time foraging, but consume 40 percent less food than animals in a familiar environment.

To overcome or minimize these effects, managers can provide some familiar feed, such as hay, to help them through the transition period. Some producers have gathered some unfamiliar plants from the new location and fed them prior to the move.

It is even possible to teach animals to eat undesirable plants in order to reduce a targeted weed population. This is normally done by the addition of some type of attractant, such as molasses.

Even though animals are familiar with a range or plant community, changes do occur. The biological world is dynamic and does evolve over time. Thus, grazing animals continue to learn by trial and error. They are well equipped to learn and will react favorably, if not subjected to overwhelming differences.

Doug Warnock is a retired Washington State University Extension agent.


The BEHAVE website is available at http://extension.usu.edu/behave


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