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Got Noxious Weeds? Teach Cattle to Eat ‘Em

July 18, 2011

GREAT FALLS, Mont. - Some Montana farmers and ranchers could soon have a new weapon at their disposal in fighting noxious weeds: Their own cattle.

The Montana Farmers Union (MFU) just wrapped-up a week of training cattle to eat Canadian thistle on three North Central-area ranches. MFU project specialist Chris Christiaens says the program involves teaching the animals to accept and look for different kinds of food. Then, the cattle teach their calves - and each other.

"Now, you teach them to eat Canadian thistle and they will eat any other kind of thistle as well. The musk thistle seem to be taking a hold up in that part of the country."

Thistle is high in protein, Christiaens says, so it's nutritious for cattle. When they eat it, he says, they help control the spread of the weeds. Cattle are fed a variety of grains on a schedule over a week's time, with the thistle mixed in at the end of the program.

Christiaens says he was surprised at how quickly the cattle developed a taste for thistle, but adds that there was no doubt on the final day of training when he carried a container of cut thistle to the feeding area.

"These cows came running. And this one cow came up between all of the others, pushed them out of the way, reached in, and pulled out this Canadian thistle, and here this Canadian thistle is, hanging from her mouth."

The MFU pilot project was financed through a grant, and Christiaens says any farmer or rancher who wants to take the time and has thistle in his or her pastures could copy the program. He says they want to experiment next year by teaching cattle to eat other invasives, such as Dalmatian toadflax and whitetop.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MT