In North America, it has been shown that cattle in warmer, drier grasslands have lower quality diets than those cattle grazing cooler, wetter grasslands, which suggests warming will increase nutritional stress and reduce weight gain. Yet, little is known about how the plant species that comprise cattle diets change across these gradients and whether these shifts in dietary quality coincide with shifts in dietary composition, i.e. the relative abundance of different plant species consumed by cattle. To quantify geographic patterns in dietary composition, we analyzed the dietary composition and dietary quality of unsupplemented cattle from 289 sites across the central US by sequence-based analyses of plant DNA isolated from cattle fecal samples. Overall, assuming that the percentage of reads for a species in a sample corresponds to the percentage of protein derived from the species, only 45% of the protein intake for cattle was derived from grasses. Within the Great Plains, northern cattle relied more on grasses than southern cattle, which derived a greater proportion of their protein from herbaceous and woody eudicots. Eastern cattle were also more likely to consume a unique assemblage of plant species than western cattle. High dietary protein was not strongly tied to consumption of any specific plant species, which suggests that efforts to promote individual plant species may not easily remedy protein deficiencies. A few plant species were consistently associated with lower quality diets. For example, the diets of cattle with high amounts of Elymus or Hesperostipa were more likely to have lower crude protein concentrations than diets with less of these grasses. Overall, our analyses suggest that climatic warming will increase the reliance of cattle on eudicots as protein concentrations of grasses decline. Monitoring cattle diet with this DNA-based sequencing approach can be an effective tool for quantifying cattle diet to better increase animal performance and guide mitigation strategies to changing climates.
Craine, Joseph M; Angerer, Jay P; Elmore, Andrew; and Fierer, Noah, "Continental-Scale Patterns Reveal Potential for Warming-Induced Shifts in Cattle Diet." (2016). Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Faculty Contributions. 16.