Have you ever tried to eat grass? Maybe you took a hard fall in a soccer game as a kid and got an unwelcome mouthful, but have you ever intentionally tried? For the sake of your taste buds, we hope not. And for the sake of your digestive system, we really hope not.
Clearly, the cows disagree. And not only the cows. Animals that are able to eat, digest, and not to mention enjoy grass and plants are called ruminants. These include the sheep, goats, cattle, everything in the deer family, giraffes, and more. These animals have what’s called a rumen, which is 1 of the four-chambered stomach that helps these grazing animals digest their food. While you let that ruminate (ha!), let’s talk about the importance of an A+ rumen and what they do to keep animals on the farm as healthy as can be.
Getting flashbacks to anatomy class? Us too. Although the talk of a cow’s stomach looks a lot different than the frog we dissected freshman year. Every species (including us!) have organs that help us extract nutrients from our food—otherwise the purpose of food would stop at our taste buds. For the cattle and other ruminants, it’s the community of bacteria that hangout inside the rumen called a microbiome. They break down the plant material and extract nutrients from it. The microbes also help to protect the rumen from disease and infection. These microbes help provide the cow with its main source of energy, vitamins, and amino acids.
An important process of a cow’s digestive system is called rumination. This is where a cow's already-digested feed comes back to their mouth (fancily known as ‘regurgitation’) so the cow can re-chew and re-swallow. What sounds unpleasant for us is just a second feasting time for the cows. Once the chewed grass (cud) gets swallowed again, it becomes easier for the microbes to digest.
So…ruminants ruminate using their rumen? Bingo! Either the cow people wanted to make it super easy for us to remember, or they didn’t have any creativity left. Either way, we’ll take it.
While we count on the rumen to nourish our cattle on the farm, it’s up to farmers to time the grazing properly so the cows are getting the right amount of nutrients into their rumen for efficient digestion (different grasses have different nutrients!). This is what we call grazing management, which affects important aspects of health, such as how well the pH (level of acidity inside the stomach) breaks down nutrients.
So, what exactly are the cows snacking on? Cows are typically grazing on either roughage or grains. Grains are your oats, corn, wheat, maize and barley, which provide tons of nutrients to the cattle. Roughage includes hay, corn fodder, straw, silage and pasture grass. These are high in fiber, but low in total digestible nutrients. Roughage often gets a bad rep because of this, but a minimum level of it is required to keep normal pH levels in the rumen. Stop being rough on the roughage!
Cows…they’re just like us! Aside from the eating grass part, of course. While food tastes good going down, it has a job to do for our bodies once it’s in our stomachs. Rumens are what keep cows fully nourished, at a healthy weight, and with a digestive system as smooth as their coat so they can remain strong and purposeful for their jobs on the farm (and after!). 🥩