The BEHAVE program focuses on livestock behavior and understanding how animals learn what to eat and where to live. Understanding how animals learn may enable us to train our animals to fit our landscapes rather than needing to manipulate our landscapes to fit our animals. Managers can change the behavior of animals because behavior is flexible and depends on its consequences. Furthermore, behavioral remedies to land management problems tend to be environmentally and animal friendly. Using grazing to sustain and improve rangelands will reduce our reliance on expensive machinery, fossil fuels and toxic herbicides.
Diet and habitat selection of livestock are complex processes. Over the past 30 years, researchers working with the BEHAVE program have sought to understand the behavioral principles that govern diet and habitat selection. A brief overview of these basic principles are outlined below:
Nutrients Increase Palatability: Animals learn to eat foods that are nutritious and avoid foods that are low in nutrients. Their bodies tell them which foods are which based on feedback from the gut.
Toxins Decrease Palatability: Animals learn to avoid foods that are toxic. Their bodies tell them which foods are harmful based on feedback from the gut.
Changes in Food Preferences are Automatic: Think animals can't be this smart? Changes in palatability occur automatically due to feedback. Animals don’t need to think about or remember feedback from the food. Even when animals are asleep, feedback still changes palatability.
- Toxins Set a Limit on Intake: In most cases, animals only eat small quantities of plants that contain toxins because toxins in plants set a limit on intake. Most toxins do not cause death or obvious sign of illness instead they keep animals from overeating any one plant.
Variety is the Spice of Life: Providing animals with a variety of foods on pastures, rangelands and in feedlots allows them to avoid toxins and balance diets to meet their own unique needs for nutrients.
Everybody is an Individual: Individuals within a species vary widely in their ability to tolerate toxins and their need for nutrients.