Scientists Sleuth Forage Secrets

How do certain forage plants coax cattle, sheep and goats into coming back for more? Scientists at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service are sleuthing the secrets of how to tempt the palates of these ruminants.

Knowing more about the culinary cues should mean healthier animals that make better weight gains and bigger profits. Research studies should also help plant breeders develop new forages that appeal to animals, according to ARS soil scientist Henry F. Mayland. He leads the forage-preferences investigations at the agency's Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research Laboratory in Kimberly, Idaho.

Earlier, Mayland and ARS colleagues Dwight S. Fisher at Watkinsville, Ga., and Joseph C. Burns at Raleigh, N.C., showed that cattle, sheep and goats prefer tall fescue hays harvested in the afternoon to tall fescues cut in the morning. Their study was likely the first to show up to a 50-percent difference in forage preferences based on time of cutting.

Now, follow-up studies by ARS scientists and their university colleagues are showing the same trend with alfalfa hay.

Animals apparently discriminate on the basis of total nonstructural carbohydrates, that is, easily digestible starches and sugars, in the forage. Other experiments to probe chemical and physical characteristics of forages indicate that cattle prefer tall fescues with high levels of a natural chemical known as 6-methyl-5-hepten-2-one.

Investigations probing the influence of minerals like calcium, magnesium and potassium on animals' forage choices are also underway. For details, see the story in the September issue of Agricultural Research magazine here.

ARS is the chief research agency of the USDA.

About the Author

Tim Brockhoff

Tim Brockhoff was Staff Writer of The Horse:Your Guide to Equine Health Care from 1995 to 1999. His degree is in Agricultural Communications from the University of Kentucky, and his equine experience is with American Saddlebreds.

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