Cows are ruminants, which means they eat a plant based diet. They are able to eat plants we wouldn’t be able to digest because of the construction of their stomach which is composed of 4 different chambers. These chambers include, the rumen, the reticululum, the omasum and the abomasum. Each chamber has a specific duty that aids in the process of breaking down rough, fibrous food. In addition, the stomach of a cow is full of healthy bacteria and protozoa that further help in digestion.
So, what specifically do they eat? Well, it depends. The diet of a dairy cow will differ from the diet of a beef cow. And the diet of a cow on a small farm will vary drastically from the diet of a cow on a big commercial operation. There is much debate around what they do eat and what they should eat, but that is meant for another discussion. If you’ll allow me to skirt around this issue, I will just say cows have evolved to eat grass. A healthy pasture should have all the vitamins and minerals a cow needs to live a healthy life. During winter or when grass supply is low, cows can be fed hay, which is basically just grass or grain that is dried for storage.
Bigger cattle and dairy operations usually don’t have enough pasture so they stick to hay usually made from a mixture of grass and legumes (alfalfa or clover). They also may supplement with silage which is a fermented product usually made up of grass, alfalfa or corn. Sileage has a high moisture content but the fermentation helps in it’s preservation so it doesn’t rot in storage.
Some people will argue against feeding corn to cows. Many years ago, ranchers found a diet heavy in grain such as corn, will help fatten up a cow faster than a diet made of grass alone. But as the years pass, more and more people are starting to speak out and shed light on the consequences of a diet high in grain since the stomach of a cow is not evolved to eat food like corn with high starches, proteins and carbs. The delicate balance of their digestive system can be thrown out of balance, resulting in an acidic environment that kills off their healthy bacteria and protozoa, contributing to many different possible health problems for the cow.
And then there are the really big operations. For economics’ sake, farmers will source out commercial food byproducts that are considered waste to humans, but still contain considerable amounts of nutrients. Byproducts will vary depending on the region you are in but typically include, beet and soybean pulp, brewers grain, bakery waste, and cottonseed. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. As I said before, I’m not trying to say what they should eat, I’m just looking into what they do eat.
Once you start looking, you’ll notice some businesses are marketing what they feed their cows. Can you tell the difference between grass fed beef and grain fed beef? What about in the milk? Share your thoughts…