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Strategies for Picky Eaters- 10 Tips from a Professional Herdsman

*What does showing cattle have to do with feeding horses you might ask? Well, there may actually be times when feeding horses like cattle is appropriate! Ryan Rogers, of Rogers Herefords, helps me explain how “training” positive feeding behaviors is valuable for skinny horses and drops some tips for picky eaters.

In 2018 I went to my first cattle show invited by Mark and Nikki Rogers of Rogers Herefords in Eatonville, WA. I was an equine specialist for an agricultural cooperative, but I enjoyed breaking out of my daily equine routine to support clients in other industries. During that first local cattle show, my overwhelming thought was, “wow, this is great- an industry that actually spends more money feeding and showing their animals than horse owners!” But, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had something to learn from these cattleman and women who sculpt their young cattle with feed! The most valuable lesson that I learned from the Rogers family is that feeding can be a trained behavior too! This perspective shift has changed how I approach skinny horses and especially picky eaters.

Twenty year old Ryan Rogers, son of Mark and Nikki Rogers, has a deeper understanding of feed ingredients and labels than most human beings I know! He uses this knowledge to “fit and trim” Hereford cattle for the show ring, and he wins… A LOT! Most recently, he’s clinched Supreme Champion Bull at the Western Washington Classic and brought home a second place heifer from the 2021 National Junior Hereford Expo in Kansas City, Missouri! Ryan uses feed ingredients like tools in a grooming kit to shape his cattle into the perfect show specimen. It's an incredible talent, but to do so, he must understand how each feed ingredient works inside the body. He must also have a thorough understanding of the animals' natural feeding behaviors. I think that horse owners can learn from some of his strategies!


Thoroughbreds fresh off the track, upper level event horses at peak fitness, senior horses and horses with a history of gastric ulcers can be very picky and tough to feed. There’s nothing more frustrating than designing the perfect diet and then having them turn their noses up at it! No matter how perfectly balanced the nutritional value, it’s not worth a penny if they don’t eat it! This is where herdsman like Ryan Rogers comes in. These guys train their cattle to feed from day one and those trained behaviors are helpful when traveling long distances, feeding in hot weather, and during very stressful showing schedules. All of same stressors that challenge skinny, picky equines! It’s a slight paradigm shift, but it’s a meaningful shift. Think about training your horse HOW to eat in the same way that you train them on the ground or in the saddle!

Question #1. How do you begin to teach young show cattle how to eat pelleted rations?

Show calves are typically weaned around 6 months of age (similar to horses) and begin their feed programs in small herd groups. “We start with a really good textured feed,” says Ryan. “Nine out of ten cattle prefer textured feed with molasses over pelleted products.” Cattlemen are not concerned with non-structural carbohydrates as much as horse owners are, but there is a valuable lesson here. Molasses and texturized feeds (when you see whole or rolled grains in the feed) are the most palatable. If you are feeding a dry pelleted product to your picky eater then switching to a feed with small amounts of whole or rolled grains and molasses is the first start. If you are concerned about colic or hyperactivity from non-structural carbohydrates then check each feed label- many times the yummy looking textured feed has similar dietary sugar and starch levels as pelleted versions.

*Examples of pelleted versus textured feed images below.

First Lessons from a Herdsman

  • Start with a good textured feed that is very palatable. For horses, this can include feeds with flavorings such as anise oil, fenugreek, and molasses.

  • Start with very small meals and build up to the desired level. This can be as small as a handful, but do not add more than 1 pound per day as you increase quantity slowly.

  • “Cattle like to follow each other”, Ryan explains. He uses their natural mimicry instinct to train the herd to eat. Consider feeding your picky eater in an environment where he/she can watch other horses eating too. Just having another horse nearby to "suggest" competition could be something to try as long as horses are safely separated.

  • Having a strict time schedule for feeding is key! Ryan walked me through their 12 hour rotation at home and during showing. “It’s like potty training a puppy,” he said! “When we deviate from that schedule, the cattle get stressed."

Question #2: As cattle develop and reach peak condition for showing, what are some strategies that you use to keep them interested in their feed?

Ryan’s proficiency as a herdsman shines through when he discusses feeding cattle. I can tell that he’s got a large toolbox of ideas gleaned from constant observation of those around him. His education is advanced enough that he can pick and choose different strategies depending on each situation. He is also acutely aware that what works for one cattleman, won’t always work for him. “If you copy cat what someone else does, then you’ll fail,” he says. “A farmer in Idaho that has a forage chopper and mixer machine has a unique advantage, but I don’t have access to that equipment, so I can’t feed the same thing.” For this reason, Ryan does not trust what he reads online. “It’s like trying to diagnose your health problem online,” Ryan laughs. “What the doctor finds is not likely what you diagnose yourself with.” The lesson here is that you should be open and willing to try new things but also feed for your own unique situation. A nutritionist can help identify those differences for you and suggest products that fit both the horse and human needs.

Schedule a FREE 15 Minute Discovery Call with the Nutritionist behind On Course Equine Nutrition CLICK HERE

More Lessons from a Herdsman

  • Consistency in the feed product is key. Ryan appreciates feed products that look, feel, and taste the same every bag.

  • Keep your primary formulated feed product unadulterated. “You might as well throw away the bag label if you start mixing supplements on top of the formulated feed. Adding 4-5 supplements means that the well balanced feed that you are giving is worthless!” Here Ryan is addressing a common mistake made in both the horse and livestock industries- feeding formulated products without understanding the feeding directions.

  • Ryan does not wet down feed to increase palatability. He finds that it can cause more problems than aid picky eaters.

  • “Beet pulp does not make sense for cattle, because it does not make them gain weight. It just makes their bellies bigger, " says Ryan. He understands that beet pulp is a relatively low calorie fiber source compared to other products on the market so he uses it sparingly. Horse owners should also use beet pulp in moderation when trying to get horses to gain a significant amount of weight.

  • There are several appetite stimulating supplements for livestock that contain Vitamin B12. Though horses naturally produce VB12 in their own digestive systems (the bacteria do), but it could beneficial to look for fortified products with B12 in it.

3) BONUS TIPS: When the weather gets hot and humid, what strategies do you use to keep them eating?

  • Horses are similar to people and cattle in that they eat less during extreme heat. Ryan suggests that animals are fed in the coolest parts of the day. “During the Pacific Northwest heat waves, we feed earlier in the morning when it's cool and keep fans on them all the time under the shade” says Ryan. “We rinse them off in the morning and evening for 10-15 minutes with the coldest water than we can and feed them around the same time.” He also suggests training animals to drink water with Gatorade long before you leave for your trip. Gatorade bottles from the store or the Gatorade powder work equally well, but make sure you start training this water drinking behavior at least a week before you leave. Keeping animals well hydrated keeps them eating well.

A winning show steer (male show cattle less than 2 years old) can be fed up to 20 pounds of feed per day coming into a big show or fair. With this much feed needed to reach peak condition, it’s no wonder that herdsman like Ryan are so diligent about their feed programs. They watch each animal very closely for signs of over-conditioning and will back them off before they get “soggy fat”. On the flip side, young heifers (female unbred cattle) may only get a couple pounds of ration balancer so that they do not get too fat. Understanding these animals unique caloric needs, how each ingredients affects the animal, and training feeding behaviors early makes herdsman successful in the show ring. Even though horses and cattle have different digestive systems, there are many similarities in behavior and energy metabolism. These ten lessons from master herdsman could change how you think about feeding your horses too!

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