Cattle use visual cues to track food locations

Larry D. Howery, Derek W. Bailey, George B. Ruyle, Wilma J. Renken

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


We tested the hypothesis that cattle aided by visual cues would be more efficient than uncued animals in locating and consuming foods placed in either fixed or variable locations within a 0.64-ha experimental pasture. Eight yearling steers were randomly selected and trained to associate traffic barricades and traffic cones with high- (oat-barley mixture) and low- (straw) quality foods, respectively. Initially steers were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 food location/visual cue treatments: fixed locations/with cues (F/C), variable locations/with cues (V/C), fixed locations/no cues (F/NC), or variable locations/no cues (V/NC). High- and low-quality foods and their respective cue (or no cue) were placed in the experimental pasture. Individual animals were allowed to explore the pasture for 10 min twice per day every other day for 1 week. Minutes until feeding, first feed type consumed (i.e., high-quality, low-quality, or no food consumed), animal location and activity (i.e., feeding, standing, or moving), and total intake of high- and low-quality feed were recorded during each 10-min trial. At the end of each week, location/visual cue treatments were randomly assigned to another 2 steers, which permitted an independent test of each animal in each treatment over a 4-week period. Animals in the F/C and V/C treatments took about 2 min to initially locate and consume a food, compared to F/NC and V/NC animals who took nearly 4 and 6 min, respectively. The high-quality food was the first food located and consumed by F/C, V/C, F/NC, and V/NC animals during 79, 77, 67, and 54% of sampling occasions, respectively. Cued animals typically spent more time feeding (P = 0.0004) and less time standing (P = 0.005) than uncued animals. Cued animals had a higher mean intake than uncued animals of high- (P = 0.001) and low- (P = 0.04) quality food. Mean high-quality intake for F/C, V/C, F/NC, and V/NC treatments was 266, 245, 214, and 126 (±22) g, respectively; mean low-quality intake for the same treatments was 36, 32, 12, and 10 (± 10) g. Cued animals also consumed more food per distance traveled than uncued animals (P = 0.005). Animals located food quicker (P = 0.03) and consumed more high-quality food (P = 0.02) when food locations were constant than when they were variable. Our data strongly indicate that cattle can learn to associate visual cues with disparate food qualities and use this information to forage more efficiently in both fixed and variable foraging environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalApplied Animal Behaviour Science
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Mar 22 2000


  • Animal distribution
  • Diet selection
  • Foraging behaviour
  • Learning
  • Spatial
  • Temporal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Animals
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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