Are Cows Omnivores?

Last Updated: 09.12.19

 

When looking for cattle fence ideas you should first identify the size of the breed you are looking to keep within the fenced area. Depending on the breeding purpose, cattle can be quite different in size. For instance, dairy cow breeds are usually slimmer and with considerable less muscle mass than cattle bred for beef.

As most of us already know, cows are herbivores, not omnivores. However, the way cattle are fed has considerably changed throughout time, especially in the past decade, because of the constant demand for higher production performances. To better understand how this change was possible, we need to take a closer look at how the cow’s digestive system works.

Cows are ruminant herbivores, meaning their stomach is made of four compartments, instead of one like humans and other animals have. Each of the stomach’s compartments has a different role and plays a key part in the cow’s digestive process.

Why do cows, sheep, goats, and deer have such particular digestion? The answer to that question lies in the food they eat. They are all large sized animals that only eat grass and hay. Since grass and hay are not that rich in nutrients and energy, this particular digestive system allows these amazing animals to get the maximum possible nutrition and energy out of it.

 

What do cows usually eat?

Any wild cow’s diet would consist of just grass and hay. Since there are no longer more than a few wild cows out there, almost the entire cattle population of the world is either kept in farms, or as family cows. This means a person, or a group of persons, gets to decide what a cow will eat, and the amounts she will receive of that particular food.

Grass feeding of cows ensures their body functions well, they are healthy and they only produce as much milk as the calf needs for the first months of his life. When people started breeding cows, they did so for the milk and beef they could eat. All of a sudden, the cows had to get fatter and make more milk. But how can you achieve that while feeding them just grass?

The answer is simple, you cannot. From this point on, people started adding other types of foods to their daily diets, such as crushed grains. This meant adding protein, fat and other nutrient elements to their usual diets, thus making them produce more of what we wanted. How was this possible for them, you may ask?

Well, a cow’s digestive system is designed to make the most of anything it gets, and it can tolerate and digest a wide range of foods. You can even feed dried bread to a cow, as a treat, and she will eat it without any health repercussions. To better understand how this works, let’s take a closer look at how a cow’s digestive system works.  

The stomach and its four compartments

The first and largest section of the four stomach compartments is the rumen. You might not be familiar with this part of a cow’s anatomy, therefore it’s good to know that its role is to break down food, and it does this by using microorganisms. Just to get an idea, bacteria and protozoa are two examples of such organisms that get this job done.

The stomach’s second compartment is known as the reticulum, and it’s responsible for working together with the rumen during the process of breaking down food. Furthermore, in case a cow ingests anything else apart from food, such items will most probably settle within this section, which means they won’t go into other areas of the digestive system.

The next compartment (and the third one, for that matter) is the omasum. What makes it interesting is the fact that it has multiple folds. These work to remove water from food particles and further grind them up, as well as absorb fatty acids. Since we’ve mentioned fatty acids, it’s good to know that their absorption ensures the necessary energy cows need.

The fourth and last section of the stomach is the abomasum, also referred to as “the true stomach” by some, given the fact that it contains hydrochloric acid and enzymes that digest the remaining food left towards the end of the entire process. A little fun fact for cheese lovers out there – this is the part out of which natural rennet is traditionally made for cheesemaking.

 

What do farm cows eat?

Depending on the breeding purpose, the diet of farm cows varies quite a lot. All cows have to eat large amounts of good quality hay, such as lucerne hay during the winter and as much fresh green grass in the warm seasons of the year. Hay has a high fiber content which is vital to a cow’s digestive system.

Besides grass and hay, farm cows will also be fed crushed grains in different amounts, according to the breed, physical condition, and the cow’s age. Other elements, such as calcium or vitamins could be added to the grain mix. Mineral supplements should be available at all times, and they should be placed in easily accessible places near the feeding areas.

Some farms choose to add animal by-products, such as crushed bones or fish to the cow’s diet. This is a protein boost, but it is not healthy at all for the animals. The risk of cows eating such supplements getting sick is a lot higher than the benefits of increased productions that this type of supplements brings.

Adding supplements or any other type of substances to a cow’s daily diet is a tricky thing because it comes with both benefits and risks. One of the first noticeable benefits is the increased production levels, of course. One of the risks is for those substances passing on into the milk and the beef that people eat, influencing their health.

Abnormal behavior in cows

Cows are usually very peaceful animals that mind their own business. However, if the living conditions they are provided with do not properly suit their needs, then signs of stress and even aggression will appear. Cows might become very loud when upset or they might behave abnormally. Biting other animals or caretakers is also completely abnormal to cows.

Proper living conditions for cows include plenty of good quality food, provided following a nutritionally balanced recipe, clean resting areas, and access to grazing areas during summer. It is also important for cows to be cared for by nice people that genuinely care for them, and do not yell at them or scare them in any way. Overcrowding is to be avoided by any means.  

Abnormal behavior includes standing for too long, weirdly moving her head and body from one side to the other, eating unusual foods, or they might bite objects around them, such as metal bars. Excessive aggression is also a sign of high levels of stress or physical pain. If all of their care requirements are met, but your cow still acts weird, you should call your veterinarian in for a check-up.  

Lack of minerals or vitamins in their diet might cause them to eat unusual foods, such as chicken eggs in case of insufficient calcium and protein in their regular food. You might also see them eating foods that are meant for other animals, such as chicken or pig pellets, if available by accident. All of these unusual eating behaviors should be further inquired.

 

 

Bibliography:

1) Herbivores don’t always stick to their diet

2) A Poignant Riddle: Are Cows Herbivores or Omnivores?

3) Herbivore, Omnivore and Carnivore Animals

4) An herbivore is an organism that feeds mostly on plants

 

 

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