What do Cows REALLY eat?

Today’s blog is brought to you by Dugan, Firefly Farms farm manager, and one of our greatest educators. He knows more about some of the more unusual parts of farming than most of us and enjoys sharing tidbits. Here is one for you.

I was in the bar with a friend of mine who used to raise Highland Cattle. We were
talking about beef and the wonders and peculiarities of the animals. We strayed a little into the world of cattle nutrition when I dropped a bomb into the conversation. Instantly, I saw eyes from a fellow nearby bore into me and I knew we had an eavesdropper.The bomb I dropped was one of my best thought provoking statements to farmers. Cows don’t eat grass. They never have and never will. They get as much use from the stuff as we do when we chew on grass, which is to say little to none.

This is where the other fellow really started to pay attention and my friend just sat back to listen as she knew I had a hook set, and well, I do love to talk. I talk a lot, probably too much. Let me bring you up to speed on what I mean when I say that cattle don’t eat grass. It is not that I mean they do not chew it, swallow it, and have a nose to figure out what grass is denser in nutrients that the rest. They have a nose and palate that are wonderful in eking out the best grass, but they do not get much out of it. There is juice in grass, some sugar in that juice, some amino acids, and some minerals and protein, but it is minimal. That is all a cow gets from grass if it gets that at all. What cows really eat is bacteria, lots and lots of bacteria. The four chambers of the stomach in a cow are fermentation vats. Only the last chamber, the abomasums, is much like our stomach. That is the one that “eats” in our common conception. The other chambers are all preparatory for digestion. That is where the raw materials are fermented in the first and massaged by starfish feet that have tons of surface area to house and protect the first round of cellulosic digestive and fermentation bacteria. Those guys soften and begin to break the structural sugars down. Some of the sugar feed them and some of it is turned into alcohol which is absorbed through the walls. The grass then passes along and it wrung out in the next chamber. I admit I don’t know where the fluids go, perhaps back to the rumen to inoculate the new grass matter. The second chamber ejects the cud for the cow to chew a second time. This mechanically breaks the grass again into smaller pieces so the bacteria can get at all the rest. The cud is swallowed down to chamber three where it is rehydrated and stirred up for a final fermentation. It then proceeds to the fourth and digestion looks much more like humans. Except it isn’t, it is grass, bacteria, and booze. A bacterium in the cow stomach is a fast multiplying and short lived creature. There are billions of them and they die a lot. They have a very simple body that has a standard lipid cell wall and the dead bodies are loaded with all sorts of goodies. Goodies that are easy to digest. They are what the cow eats. All that preparation was really a way of growing a great big soup of bacteria for the cow to eat. They walk around with a food factory; the cow grows its own food.

This is where many people begin to disagree with me and that fellow at the bar sure did. It
is akin to saying which hill makes the strongest locomotive. There are tons of steps between A and B, to the point where it looks like a non sequitur. What you missed was that under the hill was a formation of crude that could be drilled into, extracted, refined, pipeline distributed, and finally put into the train. This is much like saying that grass makes good cows. Only when you look at every step that went on in between and acknowledge that there was a whole other food chain involved before the energy ever got to the cow does it begin to make sense. Quit focusing on feeding cows, you will get enormously frustrated because A does not lead to B. Instead, work on how to make the fermentation vat they carry really hum along at full efficiency. Only then will you be manufacturing the quantity and quality of dead bacterial food that the cow needs to really grow.

We agreed to disagree, even though my statement is not exclusive of his views. His believing that cows eat grass is not wrong; the cow ingested it, processed it, and pooped it. But the grass was not for the cow and that is where my thoughts expand upon his belief. His system will still work, just like a car works for people who think that what makes a car run is the ignition key. Not wrong, just missing the whole picture. I believe that we parted as friends, I went away trying to codify what I was thinking better, and him thinking I was crazy as a loon, but I think we both enjoyed the debate. Here is a toast to you Sir wherever you may be, it was great to meet you, and fun to disagree!


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