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Animal behaviour and nutrition: the case for diverse pastures

Emerging research in the field of animal behaviour and nutrition contradicts common assumptions that animals have an innate understanding of what to eat to balance their nutrition. This research has shown that the evidence is stronger for the knowledge that for grazing animals to be replete in their nutrient status, they need to be in a position to have access to a very wide variety of plants, to learn to balance dietary needs and have time to develop the physiology to suit their habitat and available diet. When these conditions are met, they can forage successfully to optimise their health and they can correct deficiencies and excesses and self-medicate using diverse pastures as their pharmacy.

The research has also found that there is a large variance between animals in a herd and that individuals can better meet their unique nutritional needs when they have a variety of foods that differ in nutrient and toxin levels, than when they are restricted to a single food, even if that food is 'nutritionally balanced'.

These findings have profound implications for animal and land management.

They suggest that to produce the healthiest most productive animals, management needs to help animals to learn to balance their diets and manage to increase the range of foods available.

These findings also imply that current animal production methods involving specific processed feeds complemented by supplements and drenches may result in animals being produced that are not nutritionally replete.

With the rise of metabolic and chronic diseases in the human population, there are emerging concerns about the quality of food available for people. Questions are being raised about whether production methods commonly regarded as good practice actually result in foods that are nutritionally satisfactory for humans.

Future research may find that there are significant differences in food quality from different production systems and that this may have implications for human health.

Further information about this research is available from the BEHAVE program run by Utah State University. 

Some of the research highlights found by Professor Provenza and his team include;

  • Animals don't recognize nutrients (other than salt) innately; they need to have experience of eating different foods in order to learn how to combine them to balance their diets. They gain this experience by learning from their mothers and herd mates.
  • Animals that have learned to eat a diverse set of foods, respond to excesses, deficits and imbalances in their diets by selecting more or less of a particular plant in response to internal digestive feedback. In numerous experiments animals have shown abilities to balance their nutritional requirements and self-medicate if they are provide with a diverse range of foods.
  • Each animal has individual requirements due to a combination of factors including their mother's diet while they were in utero, genetics, body condition and their learned experiences.

All plants contain secondary compounds (Plant Secondary Metabolites). Professor Provenza and his team have found that grazing animals are sensitive to these and select their diets from an array of plant species that vary in nutrients. Animals use sensory and digestive feedback including taste, smell and texture to form preferences for plants and plant combinations that supply needed nutrients and medicinal compounds. It is these dynamic interactions of internal and external physiological functions that animals self manage excesses and deficiencies.

Animals that are provided with a high diversity of plants in the pasture and managed in a way that encourages them to use that diversity to balance their requirements leads to highly productive grazing systems with less dependence on inputs such as fossil fuels to re-sow pastures, supplements to correct for nutritional deficiencies, insecticides and vermicides.