Grass Vs. Grain: How it Affects the Cow

This is honestly probably the most interesting post I’ve written so far. There was a time when I didn’t give any thought to any of this and frankly didn’t care what I ate. I love when things fall into place, when things just make sense, and that’s what this article is about today. The best part is you don’t need a science degree to understand it! I started out thinking I’ll talk about cow digestion. If you didn’t know it’s actually quite interesting. But I want to expand on it more. We’ve covered why grass-fed beef is better for humans, but how does eating grass vs. grain affect cows? So I did more research than what I already knew. You guys, it’s about to get real.

The Digestion

First, let me briefly explain the basics of cow digestion. Cows basically have four stomachs. Frankly, this can be hard to “stomach.” I won’t lie. It’s a pretty gross process to think about. Cows are ruminants like sheep, goats, deer, even giraffes which means they have a rumen, a part of the stomach that allows them to take grass and convert it into protein. They eat a lot of grass, not chewing it very much, swallow it and it gets stored in the rumen. This is the biggest part of their stomach. They then lay down somewhere, sort of regurgitate the previously eaten grass (another part of the stomach called the reticulum contracts to push it back into the rumen), “chew their cud,” and swallow it again (are you feeling queasy yet?). From there it goes through the omasum and abomasum, where further digestion and nutrient absorption take place, before it goes into the small intestine, etc. similar to human digestion. You can read a more detailed explanation on the FDA’s Website. They have the awesome ability to digest grass and anything left over from grain harvesting and extract the nutrients that humans and other animals can’t!

So, the BIG question is why do we feed cows something they’re not naturally meant to eat and digest when they have the tools to do something most animals, and definitely humans, do not?

Grain Digestion

Obviously, cows do have the ability to digest grain but it is an entirely different process. You see, when eating grass, cows can eat and digest all parts of it from stalk and stem to seed. They are not really equipped with the proper teeth to break into the few seeds they may eat so these simply pass through, and the manure acts as a fertilizer causing the seeds to grow again. It’s a perfect cycle. When grass fully sprouts into seed, however, the nutrients are leached from the grass into these seeds leaving no nutrient value in that grass anymore. The cows do have enzymes that can digest these grains, but it involves the stomach creating more acid in order to break these grains down and retrieve the few nutrients the grain now has. The stomach has to “switch” to a completely different way of digesting food. It is definitely more complicated than just this. You can read more about it in Comparing Grassfed and Grainfed Beef, and Why it Should Matter to You. This process is simply an “evolutionary back-up plan” for the cow’s survival in instances where their natural food source is scarce. The article goes on to explain how these two affect the actual beef differently, mainly how it impacts the type of fat produced by the cow and how it in turn greatly affects our diet. On a personal note, as someone who is a supporter of Keto and other low-carb diets, I found the following paragraph extremely interesting:

“Grain fed beef typically has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 4:1, which at first glance would seem to be the ideal ratio. But that’s not the only thing we eat. With grain fed beef already at a 4:1 ratio, there is no room for any grains (bread, rice, oatmeal, etc…) in your diet if you want to avoid the unhealthy side-effects of eating too much omega-6’s.

Small wonder then that doctor’s often recommend cutting beef from the diets of cancer patients…

Grassfed beef, on the other hand, has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2:1. This leaves ample room on the dinner plate for some carbohydrates made from grains without the overall ratio of our diet exceeding the magic 4:1 ratio.

Which begs the question, what if doctors recommended that their cancer patients eat lots of grassfed beef, but cut the grains, breads, and cereals instead?”

Of course all of this can be debatable, but I do believe it makes sense that a lot of our health problems today don’t stem from beef, but rather the type of beef along with the increase of processed foods, how all of our food is prepared, and the imbalance we’ve gotten so used to in an American diet.

Further Down the Grain Path

So at this point in my research I was already somewhat unsurprised by what I found as far as how this affects humans, but I found the digestion difference and its effect on cows thought-provoking. Little did I know it was about to get a whole lot better. I found an interview PBS conducted with Michael Pollan, an author that examines how nature and culture collide and affect the systems we have in place. You can read the interview here. It’s a long read but I HIGHLY encourage that you take some time to check it out. He goes through each point, one thing affecting the other, like a cascading waterfall of logic. It just made sense. I found myself getting more and more excited as I caught on to what he was saying, almost beating him to the punch in my head.

He starts out by also marveling at this ability cows and other ruminants have but then goes on to explain why this natural process is interrupted. What it boils down to is the economic and financial benefits of the common commercial cow industry process. Grain (corn) is cheap and easy to grow. It fattens cows at a much higher rate and quantity than grass which means faster turnover in beef production along with higher profit.  How do local independent farmers compete? As I briefly mentioned in Cost: Is Grass-fed Beef Worth it? bigger companies have the resources to quickly push cattle through from calf to meat. They have an easier time meeting the demand and they can offer cheaper prices. What people don’t realize however is there is way more risk involved, and it is not only affecting our present but could be detrimental to our future.

Physical Impact

By now, you already know how we feel about the treatment of animals. There is an ethical way to raise and slaughter cows for meat and we abide by that. As much as we obviously support pasture-raised and free-grazing cows, we don’t think feedlots are evil. They saw an opportunity to speed up the beef production process, making it cheaper and more efficient, just at the expense of the calf. The fact is though cows aren’t meant to live in that environment or eat that type of food. The life expectancy of a cow living in a pasture is easily over ten years, close to twenty. They say the life expectancy of a cow on grain would only be a year or so after the point they would usually be slaughtered.

Remember what I said about a cow’s digestion of grain and the switch from grass-eating microbes to grain-eating microbes? It causes a higher acidity level in a cow’s stomach in order to soften those grains for digestion. This can lead to heartburn and bloat. They are not burping and releasing those gasses like they would normally. This, among other effects of this grain digestion, can have serious impacts on their health. Pollan explains this further and discusses how it can lead to liver abscesses. If the cow wasn’t going to be slaughtered soon anyway, this would certainly lead to eventual death. But we don’t worry about that, understandably. I can’t help but tie this in to what we always say about stress in animals and the effects on meat. If you suffer from frequent acid reflux *raises hand*, you get it.

The interview goes on to discuss in further detail why we started feeding cows grain in the first place, mostly due to economic gain. He talks about the antibiotics used, which I will summarize in a minute, the health problems we are facing, physical differences between the look of a cow in a pasture and a feedlot cow, his experience with his own cow, and just about every aspect of the beef industry. I couldn’t possibly reiterate everything he said without 1) plagiarizing, and 2) turning this into a novel. He is so thorough in his explanations but I also love that he tries to stay away from making too many assumptions, he gives people and companies the benefit of the doubt, and doesn’t point fingers or blame anyone for the potential mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. He understands the rationale behind the systems people have put in place.

If anything, his main point of his interview is we’ve implemented so many steps just to fix previous steps taken. Feedlots became the norm because of faster and cheaper production, however changing a cows eating pattern suddenly mixed with crowding them in a pen caused more illness than they would ever experience in a pasture, which created the need for antibiotics. A cow living on pasture doesn’t get infected with diseases such as E. Coli, but a cow on a grain diet has high stomach acidity in which E. Coli thrives. The antibiotics are not used as a treatment but instead a preventative measure. These antibiotics are in our food and water causing bacteria to be antibiotic-resistant. In turn, scientists and doctors are constantly working to develop newer and more effective antibiotics, but Pollan says it best when he says, “Nature will outwit any technology. This is what evolution has been doing for billions of years — figuring out ways to outwit threats to a given population.”

When you really stop to think about it, it’s dumb that we are, as Pollan puts it, using “band-aids” to fix the problems that literally occur ONLY because we disrupted the natural cycle. Had we kept things the way they were we likely wouldn’t have run into nearly as many problems with food-borne illness and antibiotic resistance. As I said before, and what I think Pollan touches on, is this all started with good intentions: cheaper and more available meat. However the cost saved is only being used to fix what came of that. Is cheaper meat really worth it? He believes we should go back to the system that was already in place. A system that worked. The question is, can we do this? Returning to a grazing-only method means a slower, longer and essentially more expensive process.

Of course there will be pros and cons to everything and going back to this old system wouldn’t fix everything, but it could help. Farmers are using rotational grazing patterns to help the environment, they are saying no to hormones and preventative antibiotics, and they are thinking about the future. Please, please, PLEASE go read Pollan’s interview and you too will be saying “Wow, IT JUST MAKES SENSE!”