July 10, 2017

What Do Cows and Cattle Eat?

The obvious answer to this seemingly mindless, extremely easy-to-answer question is...


In all it's various forms.

But, of course, that's really only partly right.

Sure cows and cattle eat grass because that's what they're built to eat. They are ruminant animals, meaning they have three fore-stomachs plus the true stomach that is structurally adapted to a diet of fibrous plant material.

Plus they have millions of microflora to help them break down that plant material into usable nutrients.

A quick Google search will give you several sites that tell you the three primary feeds that cattle eat:

- Hay
- Grain
- Silage

A fourth "feed" that cattle will "harvest" themselves is pasture forage (also called fodder).

There is also a fifth feed that takes on a minor precedent known as "by-product."

Now, the three four five primary feeds are largely of grasses or derived from grasses.

Hay is cut and sun-dried forage that is gathered up into bales (NOT "bails"). Plants used for hay are primarily perennial grasses that come up to be harvested year after year without any need to cultivate and re-seed (usually).

Grain is a collection of seeds from domesticated grasses such as corn, barley, and oats.

Silage is wet, wilted forage that is cut, then chopped up and stored in a wrapped bale, in a pit, pile, bunker, or silo and allowed to ferment for several weeks. Most silage is of domestic grasses like barley, corn, or oats; it can also be made up of grasses that could be used for hay.

By-products are waste material from processing grains or crop seeds into various products for human use or consumption, such as beer, biofuel, baked goods, or vegetable/cooking oil. While domestic grasses make up a large part of this production, other crops like sunflowers, canola, and soybeans are used. By-products may also include waste from supermarkets due to grading and aesthetic concerns. Waste vegetables, starches, and fruits make up a lot of this, and to some limited extent, be fed to cattle.

I purposefully did not include animal by-product as a part of the by-product list for cattle because such feeds are prohibited from being fed due to Mad Cow Disease concerns (also known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.)

Oh, but wait! I forgot to add two more items to what cattle are fed! I'll bet you didn't know that cattle also eat:

Making hay before the storm hits
- Greenfeed
- Straw

Greenfeed is treated just like hay, except that the forage component of that hay is not your typical perennial grasses as a "hay stand." Instead, this is usually made up of annual domestic grasses primarily of oats and/or barley that are cut green, dried in the sun, and baled up. Another type of greenfeed is "yellowfeed" which is a crop harvested for feed after being desiccated with a herbicide, usually glyphosate. Yellowfeed can also be a cereal crop  that has gone to maturity, and is cut and baled up for feed. (Farmers have been known to also bale up non-cereals like peas or canola to feed to cattle.)

Barley ready to be harvested for feed
Straw is what's left over and gathered up into bales after a cereal crop is harvested for its seed (grain).

What are Cows and Cattle Fed to Eat? 

What feeds are fed to cattle depends on how they are raised. Dairy cattle in confinement will be fed a variety of feeds in what's called a TMR (total mixed ration). It ensures that they get all their nutrients and types of feeds they should have for healthy rumen function and milk production. A TMR includes hay, silage, grain, and maybe some kind of by-product like soybean meal or canola meal.

I should really answer this in an other post on "How do Cows Eat" but what's funny about dairy cows being fed a TMR is that they're not stupid or dumb about carefully selecting out their "desert" first (the grains) and leaving the "vegetables" (the hay component) behind until they really have to eat it. That's why I used the words "they should have" because the human component behind the dairy-cow ration balancing expect the cows to eat everything in equal portions, when they really don't!

Beef cattle are primarily fed hay with some grain and/or silage. At least, those cattle or cows that are still raised traditionally (kept in pens during the winter, out on pasture in the summer). Cattle being finished in the feedlot are primarily on silage, with some hay and grain, then progressively fed more and more grain and silage (with a little hay) by the time they reach the end of their short lifespan prior to slaughter.

Here's where the waters get pretty cloudy. The aforementioned methods of feeding beef cattle have been practiced for many decades. But now, farmers and ranchers are taking winter feeding into more winter grazing, where hay is either being fed out in the field, or cereals are cut into swaths, but not gathered up into bales. Instead, electric fencing is used to get those cattle to eat those swaths instead.

Producers in more southern locations where winters are mild or non-existent can graze their cattle on pasture 365 days of the year. (Many cannot due to not understanding proper grazing practices of rest and rotation.)

I mention greenfeed and straw because beef cattle will be fed those feeds as well. The kicker with these is that the straw needs to be fed along with grain because a cow cannot handle an extremely high-fibre, poor protein feed source, and greenfeed needs to be fed along with a high-calcium/magnesium mineral, unless it is mixed with a hay that has lots of legumes in it (like alfalfa).

The other fun part of this question is that, continuing on with grazing, is that cattle can be grazed in annual crops that contain a variety of species that are primarily legumes, grasses, and broad-leafs (like kale, turnips, sunflowers, phacelia, flax, radish, etc.). A few producers are able to finish their cattle on this stuff, and get those cattle about as fat and sassy on that standing forage as those cattle being finished in the decades-traditional feedlot.

What do Cows Eat Other than Grass??

Legumes. Legumes make up a pretty hefty portion of a bovine's diet. Legumes are primarily found in hay, as well as pasture. Cattle will also readily eat other non-leguminous broad-leaves (or "forbs") if they find the plants particularly palatable (there's an alliteration for you!)

Did you know that grass makes up 95% of a bovine's diet? That means 5% of the diet is legumes, forbs, and some trees and shrubs, if they come across them.

Bees like legumes too!
Alsike Clover top, American Hedysarium bottom
There are quite a few species of legumes that cows will eat, including:

- Alfalfa
- Sainfoin
- Cicer Milkvetch
- Birdsfoot Trefoil
- Red Clover
- White Dutch Clover
- Kura Clover
- Alsike Clover
- Yellow/White Sweet Clover
- Hairy Vetch
- Persian Clover
- Soybeans
- Field Peas
- Beans
- Lentils
- Cow Peas
- Lespedeza
- Sunnhemp
- Faba Bean

Other non-legume forbs that cows will eat include:

- Dandelion
- Hawks-beard
- Turnips
- Radish
- Phacelia
- Flax
- Sunflower
- Kochia
- Carrot
- Squash
- Quinoa
- Plantain
- Spinach
- Chard
- Buckwheat

Cows Eat Grass on Pasture. Right?

Partly. Cows will also eat legumes, as mentioned already. A pasture that has a good legume component means that those cattle will get a lot of nutritional benefit from those plants.

Pasture for cattle isn't limited to the perennials that come up every year. Pasture also includes arable land that is typically used for cash crop production, but can and has been seeded so that it provides temporary pasture for livestock.

(This is why I strongly believe the land-use argument for not eating meat versus a 100% plant-based diet is a non-issue. That's another blog post some day, though.)

When cattle are pastured in any plant stand, they will select what tastes good to them. They are incredibly selective, much more than we think, using their tongues to both taste and grab what they want to eat.

If there are dandelions in a pasture, they will eat those with relish. Certain weeds will be eaten by cattle if they are trained to, such as Canada thistle. And when grazed in a large group where competition between animals is prevalent, they will also eat those weeds that normally, in a continuous grazing system, they would avoid (simply because they can).

So, Cows Eat More than Just Grass. Got It!!

Yes indeed. The take-away message here is that cattle will eat more than grass, not because they are forced to, but because they choose to, and can. 

In the end, they are herbivorous ruminant animals who will eat more than just grass for reasons including taste, and a craving for something lacking in their diet. Plant choices are also due to what they have learned from their mothers at a young age, or through trial and error. 

The Gentle Barn's Prosthetic-Legged Steer is Dead... Under Suspicious Circumstances.

Gentle Barn founder Ellie Laks announced Tuesday that Dudley, who had been having difficulty eating and defecating for a few days, died after “a ruptured ulcer tore apart his stomach.” 
“There was nothing the surgeons could do to repair it,” Laks said in a Facebook post. “I don't know why these things happen, I don't know why extreme loss is a part of our earth experience, but I'm so deeply grateful to have been graced by Dudley over the last two years, and if we could do it all over again, we would.”
Source for quote: Knoxville News Sentinel "Dudley, steer with prosthetic foot and mascot of Gentle Barn in Tennessee, has died"

Let's make one thing clear, before I launch into this blog post:

I am not a fan of the Gentle Barn. As a matter of fact I'm not a fan of "farm animal sanctuaries" that really and ultimately tout themselves as "sanctuaries" for farm animals when they're nothing more than glorified petting zoos.

Now that I got that out of the way, I needed to create this post, albeit a month later, about Dudley, the "rescued" Hereford steer, and give some thoughts as to what this bovine may have actually died of, and why the Gentle Barn may have actually lied about his death.

In order to do that, we need to start from the beginning.

In the beginning...

According to GB, Dudley was rescued with a severe infection or gangrene in his right hind leg. This was from, supposedly (though it makes sense), baling twine being wrapped around his fetlock (just above his hoof) for an extended period of time.

Let's stop right here and think about this.

I can understand how this would happen. There are times when life on the farm gets so busy that we forget to look in on the animals every so often. Then when one comes up looking quite ill or lame, it can be to the point where it's almost too late. In this case, it would've been either that, or the farmer really was being negligent about a) picking up his baling string, and b) checking the animals regularly for any ailing animals.

So the bull got "turned over" to GB instead of being slaughtered (which should've been done in the first place, I'll get to that soon) for beef. And the bull went through quite a bit of surgery to get the hoof amputated, and a prosthetic foot replaced.

While in surgery, the bull got turned into a steer.

But the whole thing would've been very stressful on him. Ruminant animals are not meant to be put under general anaesthesia like dogs and cats can, as doing so upsets normal rumen functions, especially if the bovine has to be under for an extended period.

The timeline for all of this, supposedly, is that the bull was given to The Gentle Barn when he was 10 months old (January 2015). Six months later (June 2015) he was brought to the Tennessee GB site. Dudley died June 2017. So 10 months surrendered, six months in multiple surgeries, and two years at GB Tennessee, making him three years and four months of age.

So that means, for two over years of his he was in chronic pain from his amputated foot.

Dudley's Life at Gentle Barn

While the video of the beginning of Dudley's torment and torture shows you what the makers want you to see--in the beginning bull Dudley is limping severely, the end he's bouncing around with his new foot like a young calf--I was perusing the GB's Facebook page on Dudley and discovered some disconcerting evidence that was very, very clear to me.

One video I remember was Dudley moving quite slowly, taking his time as he went (and he still had a bit of a limp), "going where he wanted to go" as what was said of his investigative, curiosity actions of a typical bovine. I could see he was hurting, but as a typical bovine, making an effort to act tough and not show he was struggling much.

That was back around June or July of 2016.

During that time, up to when he went back to surgery again, he was obviously fed very well: good-quality hay, some grain, some grass, and even this new-fangled green algae stuff that Dudley didn't even need, as a ruminant. He was eating some, but I think he may have already had ulcers in his abomasum at that time.

Despite his shiny coat, this photo tells me that he's not in a good way. His eyes look dull, his ears are down (not up and perky), and he's definitely favouring his right hind leg. You can really see the muscles that have been built up in his left leg, and the lack of muscling in the right.

The fact that he doesn't have much of a gut on him is partly because they're feeding him so well that he doesn't have much of a need to get a bigger rumen with more roughage, and probably partly because he's been undergoing a bit of chronic stress and pain.

And that's probably partly what killed him.

Moments up to and including Dudley's Death

Dudley was put back in the large animal clinic of the University of Tennessee where he had originally had his surgeries and prosthetic put on. A couple videos on GB's facebook page showed, undoubtedly, that the steer was in a whole lot of pain. I could see that, from what I'd seen earlier, the pain in his leg was worse now than it was.

According to the release by GB, Dudley was claimed to have not been "eating or pooping" like he should. This was followed by the release that Dudley had died of ruptured ulcers.

This is where the red flags raise up to great heights.

A bovine that has abomasal ulcers, according to Merck Veterinary Manual, do not become constipated. Here's an excerpt from the veterinary experts:

Cattle with bleeding abomasal ulcers may be asymptomatic except for intermittent occult blood in the feces, or they can die acutely from massive hemorrhage. Common clinical signs include mild abdominal pain, bruxism, sudden onset of anorexia, tachycardia (90–100 bpm), and fecal occult blood or melena that may be intermittent. Signs of blood loss are seen with major hemorrhage and may include tachycardia (100–140 bpm), pale mucous membranes, weak pulse, cool extremities, shallow breaths, tachypnea, and melena. More severe signs include acute rumen stasis, generalized abdominal pain with a reluctance to move and an audible grunt or groan with each breath, weakness, and dehydration. Melena may not be present in peracute cases, because it takes at least 8 hr for abomasal blood to be detected in the feces. As the condition progresses, body temperature drops, and the animal becomes recumbent and dies within 6–8 hr.

In general, bleeding ulcers do not perforate, and perforating ulcers do not bleed into the GI tract sufficiently to produce melena. However, hemorrhage and perforation are seen together occasionally, usually in cases that are chronic or associated with abomasal displacement.

Dudley was, now that I think of it, showing somewhat form of anorexia, just from how he didn't have much of a gut to begin with. Normally, healthy cattle have quite a fair size abdominal barrel on them. Dudley looked more like a bovine version of a Thoroughbred, with a bad leg. For all beef cattle, that's not normal.

But Merck Vet Manual has no mention of constipation!! The only way a bovine will become constipated is one of two ways:

1) Internal parasites affecting the gastrointestinal tract (digestive system), or
2) Consuming high-fibre, low-quality feed for a long period of time.

I very, very highly doubt that Dudley had either of the two afflictions.

So that leads me to believe that Gentle Barn blatantly lied about the "not pooping" activity of the Hereford.

I do believe that Dudley had ulcers. His going off-feed and skinny looks showed that. The cause for him developing ulcers may have been due to several things:

1) Chronic pain in his leg
2) Rich feed (not enough long-stemmed fibrous forage)
3) Stress on the digestive system from going through multiple surgeries with his leg
4) Other unknown factors not shown to the public

If he did have a ruptured ulcer, the perforation it would have created probably wouldn't have been so much that it "tore apart his stomach." The Gentle Barn is known for stretching the truth to its finest threads, so that part I don't believe is truth.

From all that had happened to the poor steer (and he truly was the innocent soul that was forced to go through all this torment, despite the "kind" efforts to "save" him), I have a very strong inkling that Dudley was humanely euthanized by the veterinarians, probably against what the main Gentle Barn couple really wanted.

But it was what Dudley ultimately deserved. Slaughtering him two and a half years ago would have been the much more kinder option for him. It would have avoided forcing him to have to go through that much torture, well-meaning though it may have seemed from the outside, for this long.

Dudley was never saved, in the end. He was just placed into another place and forced to live through pain that he didn't deserve to have.

Rest in peace Dudley. You're in a much better place now, thank God.