Principles of Behavior

Why Behavior?

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: 

Behavior Depends On Consequences

Positive consequences increases the likelihood of an animal repeating a behavior and negative consequences decreases the likelihood of an animal repeating a behavior. Positive consequences have fewer negative side effects. 

Mother Knows Best

An animal's mother has the greatest influence on the foods an animal chooses to eat and where it chooses to live. Once trained, animals will pass new behaviors on to their offspring automatically. 

Early Experiences Matter Most

The behavior of animals changes throughout their lives based on experience. Animals are more likely to try new things, including foods, early in life. Experience can change the an animal's physiology, neurology, the structure of its body even gene expression. 

Animals Must Learn How to Forage

Believe it or not animals actually have to learn how to eat. Young animals acquire foraging skills more quickly early in life than older animals. 

Animals Avoid Unfamiliar Foods

Animals don't like to eat new foods. Eating new foods is risky because they may be toxic. As long as animals have plenty of familiar, nutritious foods to eat, they generally avoid eating new foods. 

Palatability Depends on Feedback from Nutrients and Toxins in Food

When an animal eats a food, it is digested releasing nutrients and toxins. These compounds are absorbed and travel to the cells and organs of the body. Signals are then sent back to the brain to tell it how well a food meets the animal’s nutritional needs. The brain then pairs the food’s flavor with it’s benefits, toxicity or lack of benefits to the body. 

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.