When you have a cow, you gotta know not only how to feed it, but what to feed it.
Problem is, there's a surprising amount of misinformation that exists out there--Internet sites, videos, even podcasts--just on feeding cows alone. I can't exactly put a finger on where it comes from nor how it gets perpetuated, but I certainly do understand that a lot of it is based on fear; Fear of what we do not understand.
Part of it is to do with what comes from the agriculture industry, with the common use of feedlots and confined feeding operations for both beef and dairy cattle, and the myriad of issues that come from them. The other part is from those who are against these industrialized operations who have the good intentions to get the message out to readers like you about how awful these places are, but often simplify some of the bad stuff a little too well.
One particular "bad" thing that I really want to focus on today are the common statements that come in their various forms that, "Grain is bad for cows; Cows are not meant to eat grain; Cows don't need grain."
There certainly is a significant element of truth to these simple statements. There's no doubt about that. But, there's more to the story than what meets the eye.
Please note that this is not a post showing my support of industrialized livestock systems that support a heavily grain-dependent feeding system. This is merely a post that needs to inject some common sense into the messages above, the kind of common sense that tells everyone that, "It [actually] depends."
I've felt a need to revisit this and expand a bit more on this whole anti-grain issue after spending some time watching some YouTube channels of a particular couple homesteading families who recently lost their family milk cows (both were Jerseys) this past summer. Let me briefly explain, without naming names.
Neither, as far as I was aware, fed their cows grain, even at milking; both strove to be as grass-fed as possible. One family had a first-calf heifer that had her first calf on their farm once they bought her. The second family took in an older cow, around 8 years old. Both Jersey cows went downhill with being on grass pasture, significantly decreasing in body condition to the point that they were more emaciated than they should have been.
The first family lost their cow when she got caught under a fence for some reason, in trying to get herself up, and most likely died from a displaced abomasum (my uneducated guess). The owner tried everything to get her to stand up, from an IV injection of calcium magnesium for milk fever, to ropes and a hip-holder on her to get her to stand up. In a matter of less than a couple days after, she died.
The second family was the most concerning. They were well-meaning, and made it look like that they tried *everything* to get her health back up, from herbal remedies and a 16-way cafeteria mineral mix at the last week of her life, to blood tests to remedy some mineral deficiencies. She just wasn't gaining weight or getting better. The last few days of her life she had high temperature from fescue toxicity, and seemed to be acting unthrifty. They slaughtered her for meat.
However, there's a third homestead family that I've been listening to and watching their videos on YouTube that have done an outstanding job with their Jersey milk cow (who is as fit and sassy and beautiful as a cow can get, in my opinion) and her heifer calf, and who I will name names because they're one of my favourite homesteaders to follow. Homesteady is, in my opinion, one of the best homesteading vloggers out there. You can watch their video on how they feed their cows, and why, via this link: Our Cow is Not Grass-fed Only - Homesteady vlog
With that lengthy introduction, let me get down to the guts of why cows may not necessarily *need* grain, but there are times when they actually do, and why grain isn't exactly bad for them, but can be if it's not fed the right way. I'll also talk about the ugly truths about feeding grain, the kind of stuff that can understandably scare anybody into not want to feed grain to any of their animals, but lay it out in a way most should be able to better understand. And the feedlot model? Yep, I lay that out quite plainly too, and definitely not in a way that promotes it.
Cows as Ruminant Animals
No, cows don't have four stomachs, sorry folks. Rather, cows (and cattle) actually have three fore-stomachs in addition to their true stomach. These forestomachs are not true stomachs, instead they are extensions of the lower esophagus that have evolved from their ancient ancestors who first started developing a rumen, a reticulum, and an omasum in addition to their true stomach (the abomasum) to effectively and efficiently digest roughages, coarse plant material, or "grass" if you want to be that brief.
This makes them excellent grazers, something that no doubt they're meant to be. While they're not as "efficient" at turning forage and fodder into meat and milk, they're some of the best animals on the landscape because they are literally compost vats with a mouth and four legs. Their rumens have a teaming community of billions of microbes, from bacteria and fungi to protozoa galore. Those microbes, not the cow herself, have the job of taking the partly-eaten forage that she consumed and break it down in an anaerobic (oxygen-less) environment into much more easily digested components, and also release the nutrients contained in plant tissues.
The mutual relationship that the cow has with her internal microbial community means that the microbes get food from the fodder she's eaten, and the wastes they produce give her the nutrients she needs for her body. By-products called VFAs (volatile fatty acids) get absorbed from the rumen into the bloodstream, along with other nutrients. Other by-products that are not used by the cow, including carbon dioxide and methane, are released when she burps. A cow will usually burp once every minute.
Where does a cow get her protein from, you may ask? The quick assumption is that she gets it from the plants she eats. Well no, not quite. About half of the protein a cow gets is from the dead microbes that move from the rumen, past the omasum, straight into the abomasum where they are broken down into amino acids. The other half of the protein she gets is going to be from some of the plant material, thanks again to the activity of the rumen microbes.
There are two types of microbes in a cow's rumen, those that break down fibre, and those that break down starch. Both co-exist in the rumen, though depending on her diet, one will be more heavily populated than the other. As you may guess, a cow on a grass-fed diet would have more fibre-digesting bacteria than starch-digesting bacteria; the opposite is true for a cow on a high-grain or high-concentrate diet. It's those fibre-digesting bacteria, though, that makes cows truly great at converting forage into milk and meat.
Hence the common and albeit truthful belief that cows and cattle are meant to be on grass, not grain.
...and They Actually Seem to Like to Eat Grains, Even Though They "Shouldn't..."
Cows don't read books, public forums, social media posts, Internet articles... they just do what they darn well please. But they're not exactly dumb either, even though they can get themselves into fixes that leaves us scratching our head as to how and just why they got into such a fix in the first place.
And yes, they can and have died from such fixes.
We certainly know that cattle, as ruminant animals, are certainly perfectly designed for digesting forages--or just "grass"--because of their fermentation-vat fore-stomachs. But that definitely doesn't mean they aren't going to deliberately and purposefully select only for the leaves and stems of grasses and forbs and completely avoid the seeds or flowers in the process, because they certainly will, especially if it's edible and tasty. Only if that grass is known to previously cause discomfort or isn't palatable will cattle avoid eating the seed-heads.
In a managed-grazing system where cattle are mobbed up in a dense group, those matured grasses that don't get eaten will just be trampled to the ground, seeds dispersed, and the material decomposed into the soil along with the manure the animals leave behind when they're quickly moved to the next paddock.
The way a cow eats is that she will wrap her tongue around the top quarter or third of a plant and pull it in her mouth, then break it off with her lower incisors (she does not have upper incisors like all her other ruminant distant cousins, from bison or buffalo to sheep) to chew briefly, then swallow. It's that top part of the plant that she will always go for first, never the bottom where most of the leaves are going to be. This is especially true if she and her herd mates are put into a stand of mature grasses. She will do the exact same thing if she were grazed in a pasture where grasses have not yet headed out, or have seed heads just beginning to emerge.
Let's move this cow to a situation where she's grazing in a field of cereal crops (standing, or in swaths or windrows) or in standing corn, or even in a polyculture crop full of a mix of different annual grasses, legumes, brassicas, and other beneficial forbs from phacelia to plantain. What do you think her and her herdmates will do when they are moved into a new paddock in these types of forages?
Go for the cream of the crop of course!
Remember, a cow always first bites off the top part of the plant, or the most succulent, most tasty part of the plant first. Cows will use their bodies to push the taller plants down to where they can reach the top parts of the plants, if the crop is taller than they are. They will tear off the heads, the leaves, and keep doing that until they have trampled down much of the material, and are ready to move to the next paddock.
When we're talking corn grazing, of corse the corn is always going to be taller than the cows. But also remember that cows are smart, and are capable of solving problems. I have heard of stories and seen cows that will walk down a corn stalk--putting the stalk between their front feet on their chest--and push down the plant until they reach the cob, the best part of the corn plant. They will strip off the husks with their tongue, and once most of the husks are eaten, will take the whole cob in their mouths (with their powerful tongue's help of course), pull it in and start chewing it down and eating it up. When the herd is confined to a small area for a day, this makes the cows go for not only the cobs (or rather, not focus so much on the cobs), but also the leaves, and then eventually--albeit reluctantly--the stems. The rest the cattle will trample down into the snow and the ground, mixing their manure in with what's left.
Swath-grazing cows learn to use their noses to move away snow to get to the swath underneath. Of course some cows figure it out quicker than others, and sometimes it takes a couple generations for cows to become adjusted and knowledgeable about how to access swaths under snow. Even if swaths are partly or not covered by snow, cows still know where the good stuff is going to be and will, just like with the corn, eat that first before eating the rest of the plant. With being controlled by cross-fencing and electric fence, they are forced to eat as much of the swaths as possible before being moved on to the next area.
What if these animals were not controlled by electric fence?
They will overload on the best part of the crop, and ignore the poorer, less palatable part of the crop until all the best stuff is cleaned up. By "overload" I mean that they can and will suffer from similar maladies as what happens in a feedlot when cattle are introduced to a high-concentrate ration too fast; They will get acidosis, grain-overload, and bloat, and can die from that. A rancher can lose cows on corn or swath-grazed fields if those animals are not sufficiently controlled. A rancher could also lose cows on that same uncontrolled fields if the cows survived the bite of overloading on the rich grains, but then get impacted and constipated from the highly fibrous portion of the crop.
A recipe for disaster. This is why management in winter in a winter-grazing system is so bloody important.
Where Grains Can Kill (or are Actually Bad)
It's time I talk about the negative side of feeding grain to cattle.
Grains, as seeds, are high in energy, somewhat high in protein. Grains--that primarily fed to livestock--include corn, barley, oats, wheat, rye, and triticale. These are primarily your cereals, except corn which is generally regarded more as a large-seeded crop.
Grain is normally fed partly "processed," which is basically just putting it through a mill or steamer to crack, chop, steam, or roll each grain. This makes it easier for animals to digest. Ruminants normally only need their grain coarsely chopped compared with grain-fed monogastrics like pigs or chickens.
Grains should never be fed to ruminants as the sole ingredient of a diet, like you can with pigs and chickens--well, you shouldn't exactly do that either, but this isn't about feeding hogs and poultry. Rather, grains should be fed along with a roughage feed. But, when we start talking about feedlot diets, the last few weeks of a feedlot steer's life is spent on an 85% grain or high-concentrate diet. I won't ever say that this is healthy, and I'll explain later.
The most significant issues that come with grain and ruminants is when the animals are fed too much and introduced too soon. Frothy bloat, acidosis, and grain overload are the primary illnesses that come from such a practice.
Frothy bloat is basically a condition where tiny bubbles form from the rapid digestion of proteins and starches in the rumen. These tiny bubbles are made up of a really slimy, viscous extracellular fluid that are difficult to break, containing within them the waste gases that rumen microbes give off in an anaerobic environment--primarily carbon dioxide and methane.
These slimy, unbreakable, CO2/CH4-gas-filled bubbles quickly build up in volume, in a short period of time, filling the rumen up so much that the rumen walls become tight as a drum, putting a continual enormous amount of pressure on the lungs. It is at this point that bloat is so severe that the pressure put on the lungs significantly reduces the animal's ability to breathe properly and get that necessary oxygen. When that happens, the animal dies of asphyxiation. Think of it this way: Bloat acts almost like a python that wraps itself around its prey and squeezes so tight that the prey cannot breathe, and with every breath exhaled, the tightness of its coils increases until the animal dies of suffocation. The only thing is that bloat is completely internal.
Yep, bloat is a nasty, nasty way to for an animal die from.
Frothy bloat does not occur exclusively on grain--often called "feedlot bloat"--it also occurs in pasture. The pasture bloat is another blog post topic all together, so for this post I just want to stick with feeding grain--that is, the frothy bloat that comes from feeding grain.
How do animals get frothy bloat on feeding grain? Two ways:
I won't get into how to fix a case of bloat before it's too late and you lose your animal, but the two most popular methods used are tubing with mineral oil, or using a trocar to the side of the animal. You can read more about how to treat bloat by visiting wikiHow's How to Treat and Prevent Bloat in Cattle.
The main lesson here is, if you have to feed grain to your cow[s], make sure they are coarsely chopped or ground, or just cracked, so that most of the grain appears whole but only has one mark on it, enough that it will just fall into a couple of pieces. Tempering whole grain (soaking it for 12 to 24 hours in water) will also help, as well as steam-rolling. Both add water to reduce the incidence of the dry grain from shattering.
The second lesson here is to introduce grains slowly in any ruminant diet. That means introducing grain incrementally. If your target is to feed your cow 5 lb of grain per day, over a week (say five days) build up on that target amount by first feeding your cow one pound the first day, then two pounds the next day, and so on and so forth until you're up to 5 lb by the end of the week. Or, you can increase every couple days so that it's more like a 10-day adjustment period. It depends on what you're comfortable with.
Keep both of these lessons in mind as I get to talking about acidosis and grain overload. Both of them have precedence when it comes to these ruminant-killer conditions.
Acidosis & Grain Overload
A metabolic condition that results in the drop in pH of the rumen to more acidic conditions for a period of time, acidosis is another serious malady that merits discussion when it comes to feeding grains to cattle. There are two forms to keep in mind: Acute acidosis, and subacute acidosis.
Acute acidosis is also called "grain overload," and occurs when ruminants eat too much energy-rich feedstuffs (most commonly grains) at one time, and there is a sudden and rapid digestion of starch in the rumen. This causes the rumen to become severely acidotic for an extended period of time, killing off the acidic-intolerant microbes, except for the lactic acid producing bacteria which can thrive quite well in an acidic environment. Unfortunately for the ruminant, these bacteria love these conditions so much that they contribute to ever-acidifying conditions, causing rumen pH to push even further downward.
Animals with grain overload are truly noticeably sick (unlike with those of subacute acidosis). They are not eating, not moving around or acting lively as they normally do, breathing rapidly, have a bad case of diarrhea (greyish coloured), or are just found dead.
Subacute acidosis is a whole 'nother monster. This condition is most common in feedlot animals and in confinement dairy operations. It is much more of an imbalance between acid production and absorption of the rumen, and much, much more difficult to detect. The problem is that each time the rumen has to recover from acidotic conditions (where rumen pH dips below 5.8), it can take longer to recover, resulting in just a little more damage to rumen function in terms of decreased nutrient absorption, decreased fibre digestion, and damage to the rumen lining. Ruminitis can happen when a bout of acidosis was severe enough to damage to the rumen epithelial tissue, which invites bacteria to invade these spaces causing infection, damaging rumen papillae and affecting absorption capability. Bacteria can also enter the bloodstream this way and cause other secondary maladies, such as (and most commonly) liver abscesses and founder (or laminitis).
Let me put it another way: Subacute acidosis happens when ruminants have a bout of grain-eating followed by a period of not eating, or a bit of a belly ache that puts them off feed (or just reduces their appetite). They recover from that, then get set back again by another bout of eating the same stuff that gave them the belly-ache in the first place, and the nasty cycle continues on.
The main difference between subacute acidosis and acute acidosis (grain overload) is that one will just reduce feed efficiency and cause animals to reduce feed intake for a time, and the other can out-right kill in a matter of hours, respectively.
If you want to read more about acidosis, I suggest to check out these links:
Feedlot Cattle Are "Healthy"... Or Not.
I know I'll definitely ruffle some feedlot-supporter feathers with this last segment but it's the kind of things that just need saying.
Not only is there the issue with cattle having to be living in a dirt lot that will range from hot and dusty to cold and muddy, even if it's just four or six months of their lives with their previous times on pasture just a memory, but the fact that these cattle are "forced"--using the term rather liberally--to be eating grain every day for the rest of their lives, right up until the day before are slaughtered, so that they grow faster bigger fatter and more "cheaply", just isn't normal nor right. Not from a real deep, compassionate animal welfare standpoint, nor from a nutrition and ruminant physiological standpoint.
Their living conditions is another topic altogether. But when you look at those animals that are to be gaining at around 3 to 4 pounds per day (this is fairly normal, actually) on a feed--or one of the main feeds--that is basically nutritionally-deficient, and is mostly made up of carbohydrates, don't you ever think that those animals that are being finished on a feedstuff that is, really, not suited for them as ruminant animals, are actually suffering within, even though they can't talk and don't bear the same human emotions as us to tell us about it?
You see, the immediate thought when I think of cattle being put on grain, I think of it like putting a person on a diet of nothing but candy, chocolate bars, potato chips, and soda, as much as they can eat (even though it's given to them as a limited diet), for the next half year? Oh, maybe at first they'll be some vegetables and fruits for the first week, but then the last few weeks of their diet it's 90% candy and chips! What did you say? It's not healthy for a person to be on such a junk food diet? Well of course it's not healthy! Then let me ask you this: Why is it then perfectly okay to feed a ruminant a diet that is completely the opposite of what they're physiologically designed to eat in the first place? Don't you think that's also a junk-food diet for them too?
Yes, I know I've already said that cattle do in fact like to eat grain because it tastes like candy to them. But I'm sure you also like to sneak in that chocolate bar too when no one's looking, even though it's not healthy, but it tastes good too. Same thing, isn't it? My point being that feeding grains are okay because cattle like to eat it is a weak argument for continuing the practice of feedlot-finishing. They may like to eat it, but it's still not healthy for them to be eating so damn much.
Finally, if it's "healthy" for cattle to be on a feedlot finishing diet like that, why am I hearing a lot of cases with animals dying from acidosis, grain-overload, bloat, and other maladies I haven't covered that I seem to see a lot from bovine veterinarians who share their adventures, such as pneumonia, and even heart failure? I'm telling you, if you start connecting the dots...
It really is not necessary to be feeding grain when there are other options available, including the capability to cull out those cows that are needing the extra TLC when you've got other cows and replacements coming in showing that they don't need nearly as much, if at all, supplementation.
Honestly, especially in a cow-calf operation, if you're having to feed grain to your cows, something's wrong with your management. You either need to start looking at what you're feeding, and what kind of cows you have, what bulls you're selecting for, and what replacements you're selecting.
I have no problem, and neither should you, with feeding grains to cows and cattle who need it as a supplemental form with other feeds, such as hay or pasture, that they're also getting because those other feed sources are just not meeting their energy needs. But I have a problem with the over-use of grain, especially to finish cattle, when other options that don't call for the need of grain, or as much grain, can be used to successfully finish a steer or heifer for the freezer or for your clients.
I will never sit here and tell you what you can or cannot do with your cow[s]. That's totally up to you. But I hope this post has given you some "food for thought," so to speak, and given a little different incite on the feeding of grains to cattle.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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