Grass (pasture) is the obvious answer and mostly true but not 40% correct. There are considerable differences in cattle raising practices around the world, so there is quite a bit of variation in what makes up a cow’s diet. The purpose for which the animal is being raised also makes a difference, as dairy and beef cattle are fed differently. Throughout the world’s cattle producing areas, there is quite a range of items fed to the animals, depending on what is available locally and what regulations exist. The top six producers of cattle are: the U.S., EU, Brazil, Australia, Argentina and Russia, who together make up about 60% of commercial cattle production.
The Holstein cattle and the Ankole-Watusi cattle
The most popular dairy cattle would be the Holstein cattle. The weirdest of all cattle breeds would be the Ankole-Watusi cattle. Those horns are real and some can grow up to 8 feet from tip to tip. You can also call it the Devil’s cow for its distinctive horns.
A balanced diet is necessary
When cattle are fed on more than pasture, a lot of effort goes into making sure the pasture itself is as nutritious as possible as a base for cattle health. Farmers need to make sure their diet is nutritious and palatable, as well as cost-effective. Getting the correct balance of elements to achieve high quality milk or beef is quite technical, with professional nutritionists often involved. Supplements are mostly protein made from grains like barley, wheat, corn, seeds (often crushed to make meal, such as canola, cotton or soybean) plus chemical trace elements. In some parts of the world, like in the U.S., protein supplements can include “blood meal” which is made from processed animals, mostly pigs or poultry, occasionally fish. Regulations define what animals can be used for this purpose – cattle can’t be fed cattle, for example.
Cows need clean, fresh water too
Cows also need to drink a lot of water, so a source of fresh, clean water is important. A large part of a cow’s diet is based of roughage and forages – a cow being a ruminant, is able to digest foods that most other animals can’t, and is generally able to maintain health and productivity on the nutrient it gets from pasture foraging. However, farmers may determine that supplementary feeding is necessary based on other factors, such as production targets of quantity, size, time or fertility as well as health. Supplements may be different according to the stage and type of production for which the cow was bred, its breed, age, stresses such as transportation, weather and environment.
How do cows digest their food?
Cows are ruminants, which means that they have four separate chambers in their stomachs, so their digestion process is quite complex. The first of the cow’s stomach chambers is called the rumen, basically a large fermentation vat. It contains a large population of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and other microbes which start the digestive process by attaching themselves to the food particles and breaking them down. The portion of nutrients used in this way is called the degradable protein. Undegradable protein is not broken down in the rumen, but passes regurgitated into the mouth (the cud), is chewed again and swallowed. This process is repeated constantly to break food down for digestion.
What is next?
The reculum is the next chamber, where non-food items eaten by the cow are collected and broken down gradually by gastric juices. The third chamber, the omasum, contains many layers of surface (like a book) to maximize moisture absorption from the matter which has passed into it from the rumen. The abomasum is the most like a human stomach; it contains enzymes which break down the food matter even further. From there, food passes into the small intestine where it is broken down further in stages and where most nutrient absorption occurs.
Cows and the environment
We will leave the process there, except to mention that emissions from cattle account for a higher proportion of greenhouse gases than does mechanical transportation.