Why cattle eat tree branches is a question I am often asked at this time of year.
Cattle are browsers, they chew and eat tree branches throughout the year. During winter, though, they appear to munch wood more regularly. Do cattle chew wood because they are hungry?
Some people assume cattle eat wood because they are hungry, which might be the case in certain circumstances. They might also be bored eating near tasteless winter vegetation. Some people think cattle only eat grass, which is not the case; cattle will eat many things. Pedigree belted Galloway and Shetland conservation cattle grazing Wilden marsh eat leaves, thistle crowns and stalks, holly, mistletoe and many other plants. They dig up and eat roots. They pull bulrushes from ponds and pools and eat the sweet, starch-rich rhizomes growing below the water level as well as the tough green leaves above.
As the energy and mineral contents of above-ground vegetation reduce during winter, cattle have to look elsewhere for their nutrients. Phosphorous and sodium deficiencies will both cause cows to crave wood and bark. I like to have a large wood bonfire on the marsh mid-winter, and the cattle will eat the ash to top-up with essential minerals.
Salt also referred to as sodium chloride, helps perform several vital processes within the body, including water regulation. Without salt, a cow’s body cannot function properly. The effects can be devastating if a cow does not have proper levels of salt within their body.