Investigators of healthy food have pointed to the bovine feedlot as a prime suspect for nastiness, saying that cattle are so unsuited to the digestion of corn or other grains that the ground in feedlots is covered with cow vomit. Yuck. But WHY do they throw up? An article in my local ag rag is revealing. It was written by J. Wagner and T.L. Stanton, Animal Sciences professors at Colorado State University and is framed as advice to ranchers “finishing” by switching them to grain.
There are four points to the discussion:
1. If cows go from eating roughage (hay) to eating grain too quickly, they will suffer from acid indigestion (produced by rumen bacteria trying to digest the grain) so severe that the cow may stop gaining weight or die.
2. So the cows should be switched from hay to grain in steps, maybe as many as eighteen (!) so as to be gradual enough for the cow’s natural “buffering ability” to keep up.
3. The writers feel that successfully switching to grain is possible if it is done carefully. (I will refrain from cynicism at this point.)
4. The best way to tell whether the switch is gradual enough is by inspecting the cow’s dung. This is better than lab tests on fecal starch or pH, which is the acid/alkalai ratio. (It’s possible to be too scientific.)
If this is too much information for you, don’t keep reading.
Grain is used to “finish” cattle because it is usually more economical, depending on variables like cattle prices, cattle breeding, the price spread between good and choice (grain-fed) quality carcass grain and the price of grain. It’s possible that making grain into ethanol will take the price of grain high enough that feedlot grain feeding will be too expensive and we’ll all be treated to arguments about “healthier” hay-fed cattle. But the feedlot people will groan at the necessity of jacking the hay around to the cows. On the other hand, with modern hay managing equipment, it’s hardly like having to buck bales over a fence. There is some evidence that grain feeding is the source of the kind of e-coli that kills humans and that sticking to hay can clear e-coli out of the cow’s system.
When a cow has acid indigestion or the bovine equivalent of heliobacter pylori, it’s in more trouble than a human because it has more stomachs. Evolved to digest fiber of all kinds (organic) it is basically a series of fermentation tanks. (There used to be a guy downwind of Browning whose cows included a lot of wind-transported paper and cardboard in their diets. Of course, today’s plastic sacks would kill them.)
The key to this digestion system is pH, which should be neutral, or “7” on an arbitrary scientific scale. Below 7 substances are labeled acid and above 7 the substances are “base” or alkali, like TUMS. When the bacteria are happily living at 7, they make the stomach contents into volatile fatty acids of three kinds: acetic, propoionic and butyric. These are the sources of the cow’s energy and they are only mildly acid, taking the environment to 6.5 or 6.8. Other stuff in there, when the cow eats roughage, is fiber, lignin, cellulose, and hard-to-digest carbohydrates. I suppose you could call this “cud,” since the cow brings it up and rechews it.
But grain is starch and sugar, which go quickly to glucose (Tell me about it! I can see it on my meter!) and then to lactic acid. If the grain goes to lactic acid in amounts the bugs can handle, no problem. But a little too much makes the bugs sicken and die. Then the acid score goes to 4 or 4.5 and digestion stops. (Tell me about it! I take a Pepcid AC every night! And it used to be much worse before I eliminated all sugar, white flour, and corn syrup from my diet.)
But wait, there’s more. Cattle drool and their saliva is alkaline (8.4 - 8.7). When they chew their cud, the saliva acts like TUMS. It’s the chewing and saliva that liquefies the roughage so it flows smoothly through the system. (More than 70% of the liquid in a cow’s stomachs is from saliva. Like, 20 to 30 GALLONS of saliva!) But they don’t slobber much over grain, so it doesn’t get either buffered or liquified. Silage and green chop are wet but work like grain, besides being already acid.
That’s not all. Grain-type foods spoil easily and can’t be left in the feed bunks more than 12 hours without going moldy and stale, so the cows won’t eat it. “For every 1 percent reduction in intake, expect reduced gains of 1.5 to 2.0 percent.” Cows are SUPPOSED to gain weight -- at cross-purposes with human desire to LOSE weight. The Marine cafeteria idea (take all you want but eat all you take) works out to feeding cattle twice a day, but no more than they will clean up -- but feed them again within a half hour after the bunks are empty. But if a storm is coming, they will increase consumption by as much as 20% which means that they ought to be throttled back with hay rather than grain.
Every morning someone must calculate the food value of the feed as well as its moisture content (which can vary as much as 200%), check that the bunks are emptied and what the intake was, look at the weather, and make up a feed ticket for the day. Every evening the whole process must be repeated and any errors (over- or under-feeding) should be corrected. A 500-1,000 cow or steer should have a minimum of 8 inches of bunk space, but a foot is better. (I’d give ‘em more space that that, were I there! Like farther than the length of their legs.) If there’s not enough room so that they have to crowd in, they eat more food but less often, which hinders weight gain. And if they have a tummy ache, they will eat less. They might even throw up.
That’s ugly enough, but what you really want to pay attention to is the cow manure. You’re looking for “stools that are a little loose -- somewhere between one that is stacked or formed and loose -- with a little big of grain passing through. A bubbling loose stool or one with white caps indicates acidosis.”
This doesn’t address antibiotics, growth hormones, and other molecular fiddling with cows. But it seems to me that it clearly makes the point that if you eat cows, you should not eat as they do. And maybe eating feedlot cows is a lousy idea. If you do, eat a lot of spinach and All-Bran to make up for what the cow didn’t get.