Chris Christiaens, of the Montana Farmers Union, was looking for more evidence that his effort to teach cattle to eat weeds was working. It came last Monday, up on a ranch near Valier.
"I was carrying a barrel of weeds out and the cows came running," he says, "and one old cow...barreled her way in to make sure she got her share. She lifted up this long Canada thistle and was chewing on it out there. It was really funny to watch."
Christiaens appears to be successfully enlisting cattle in the battle against weeds. He recently landed a $3,000 grant from the Farmers Union Industries Foundation to launch a pilot program involving three ranches and 100 head of cattle in north-central Montana.
Like tricking a picky kid into eating broccoli, the program instilled cattle with a taste for different kinds of feeds through a complicated, weeklong feeding regimen. It culminated in Christiaens introducing protein-rich Canada thistle, an unruly perennial that infests pasture and rangeland.
"It's working," he says. "It doesn't kill the Canada thistle, but it keeps them from spreading...Farmers and ranchers could use this little training and be able to do it themselves very inexpensively." He estimates the pilot program cost $400. The remaining grant money will be spent working with as many as six ranches next year.
The program builds on Natural Resource Conservation Service research in the Lower Musselshell Conservation District in 2009. Twenty-two heifer-and-calf pairs were trained to eat Dalmatian toadflax. "Mom didn't train them that it's okay," says NRCS District Conservationist Krist Walstad, "so once they get past that, they utilize it"—and he says they still are.
Will the weeds spread through manure?
Not if they're eaten before they go to seed, Christiaens says.
And what about the flavor of the meat?
"With grain-fed beef I doubt you would notice it," Walstad says. "You could teach them to eat a number of different kinds of weeds," says Christiaens, "but I would be very careful: I'd go to my county extension agent and make sure that they're not toxic to the cow before I would try it."