Grass vs Grain: Impact on the Cow

Grass vs Grain: Impact on the Cow

Let’s dive into cow digestion. Did you know cows have four stomachs? They’re ruminants like sheep, goats, and deer, which means they can turn grass into protein.

Here’s a quick rundown: cows eat a lot of grass without chewing much, swallow it, and store it in their rumen (the biggest part of their stomach). Later, they regurgitate it, chew it again, and swallow it back for further digestion and nutrient absorption. Cool, right? You can find more details on the FDA’s website. Cows have this amazing ability to digest grass and extract nutrients that humans and other animals can’t!

So, why do we feed cows grain if they’re naturally designed to eat grass?

Grain Digestion
Cows can digest grain, but it’s a different ballgame. While they can digest all parts of grass, they aren’t really equipped to break into the few seeds they might eat. These seeds just pass through and help fertilize the grass again—nature’s perfect cycle. When cows eat grain, their stomachs produce more acid to break it down, switching their digestion process. This is an evolutionary backup plan for when their natural food is scarce. This process impacts the type of fat produced by the cow, which in turn affects our diet. For example, grain-fed beef has a different omega-6 to omega-3 ratio compared to grass-fed beef. This difference can have significant implications for our health.

Economic and Physical Impacts
Economically, feeding cows grain is cheaper and speeds up beef production, making it more profitable. However, it comes with health risks for the cows. The high acidity in their stomachs from grain digestion can cause health issues like heartburn and bloat. This can lead to liver abscesses and other serious health problems. Feedlots, where cows are crowded and fed grain, increase the need for antibiotics to prevent illness, which contributes to antibiotic resistance.

Michael Pollan, an author who examines the intersection of nature and culture, discusses these issues in an interview with PBS. He explains how economic benefits have driven the grain-feeding process, but this has led to a cascade of problems. Antibiotics are used not as a treatment but as a preventative measure, which can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Pollan suggests that many of our current issues could have been avoided if we hadn’t disrupted the natural grazing cycle. Returning to a grazing-only method might be slower and more expensive, but it could reduce problems like food-borne illnesses and antibiotic resistance.

At Maple Wind Farm we use rotational grazing patterns to help the environment and avoid hormones and preventative antibiotics. Come and see it for yourself at our next pasture walk.

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