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Scientists Sleuth Forage Secrets

By Marcia Wood
September 28, 1999

How do certain forage plants coax cattle, sheep and goats into coming back for more? Scientists at the 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.

See earlier story about grass hay preferences

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 on the World Wide Web at:


ARS is the chief research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Henry F. Mayland, ARS Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research Laboratory, Kimberly, Idaho, phone (208) 423-6517, fax (208) 423-6555,