Today we’re going to skim the surface on an popular agriculture topic, cattle nutrition. We don’t usually go this deep into agriculture topics, but we decided to for a few reasons:
- We sometimes get questions from customers who ask if our cattle only eat grass. The answer is no. All cattle (even grass finished cattle) sometimes need to eat something other than grass in order to be healthy, like mineral.
- We try to be completely transparent about what we do on our farm, and one of the things we focus on daily is cattle nutrition.
- If you’re thinking, “I’m a typical consumer that just wants good grass fed beef. Why should I care about cattle nutrition and mineral?” The answer is because without cattle nutrition and mineral, the quality and quantity of grass fed beef changes. In other words, without good cattle nutrition, your steaks won’t be as good.
What is cattle nutrition?
Cattle nutrition is a very complex topic. Like all animals, cattle require a balance of nutrients for survival. They receive these nutrients through their diet, which provides six basic cattle nutrients: water, carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Today, we’re going to focus on talking about minerals. In future posts, we may cover the other cattle nutrition elements.
Why do cattle need mineral?
Beef cattle require a large number of minerals for optimal grown and milk production. If they’re lacking in mineral, they can become unhealthy and loose weight.
High quality grass can provide a large portion of the required minerals, but sometimes grass is lacking the mineral and it must be supplemented.
What minerals do cattle need?
There are 14 essential minerals all cattle need: calcium, copper, cobalt, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, sulphur and zinc.
What’s in the cattle mineral you give your herd? Is it all-natural?
There are all different types of cattle mineral on the market, and farmers can chooses the best one for their herd. On our farm, we use an all-natural, non-GMO product that is rich in magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, just to name a few.
How much cattle mineral do cattle eat? How do you feed it?
On our farm, all of our cattle are free range and they live in the pasture their whole life. We place cattle mineral in large tubs in the middle of the field near water sources.
A cow knows when it’s body is deficient in an area, and it will eat as much mineral as it needs. It doesn’t overeat mineral.
This can be compared to when a human craves a healthy food – if you’re craving bananas, your body may be telling you that you need potassium.
Does the quality of beef change if there is poor cattle nutrition or lacking in mineral?
Whether or not the grass has lots of nutrients or not will affect the beef a little. If there are lots of nutrients, like in late spring grass, cows will convert the extra nutrients to fat. Conversely, if there are less nutrients in the grass, like dormant hot summer grass, cows use all of the nutrients immediately.
Why can’t cattle get all the nutrients they need from grass?
This is a BIG question, that has a multifaceted answer.
To understand a little about this, we have to first explain the importance of grass.
Grass is extremely complex, and it has different nutrient levels throughout the year. When a farmer looks at grass, they see it as nutrition. They know that to get the best beef, it requires high quality grass that is managed well.
The nutrient content in grass is highest during the spring when there is new growth, good temperatures and rainfall. There is also a lot of water content in grass during the spring. This water flushes nutrients out of a cow’s body, such as magnesium.
In the late fall and in winter, mature or dormant grass has much lower energy, protein content and overall digestibility, compared to spring pasture.
The bottom line is sometimes grass has all the nutrients cattle needs, and other times it doesn’t have all the nutrients it needs to keep cattle healthy. When nutrients are lacking, farmers rely on cattle mineral to supplement the cattle’s diet so that they stay healthy.
How does mineral help with cattle nutrition?
Mineral helps with cattle nutrition in three basic areas:
1. Reproduction – Making sure that our cows have the correct levels of minerals in their bodies helps them to conceive. If you put this in context of humans, it’s like a female who is trying to get pregnant. She starts taking a prenatal multi-vitamin because she (and eventually the baby) need the additional vitamins and minerals.
2. Calf Health – When the mother cow has the correct mineral source, her calf is healthier. This ultimately reduces disease and sickness in the cattle herd.
3. Immune function – Healthy cattle means they have a better overall immune system and they can fight diseases naturally.
How can a cow turn grass into nutrients (and humans and many other animals can’t)?
A cow’s digestive system is very different unique.
In fact, compared to the top meat proteins — beef, pork and chickens – only cattle can convert grass into energy.
They are ruminant herbivores, which means they rely on plants for food. It also means they use four stomach compartments—the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum—to collect nutrients.
When a cow eats grass, it only chews it a little before swallowing. Then, the grass goes into the largest portion of the cow’s stomach called the rumen. The rumen holds up to 50 gallons of food that has been partially digested. To put that in perspective, a bathtub can usually hold 30-50 gallons of water.
Some people compare the rumen to a large food processor because the rumen has millions of tiny organisms that live there naturally and help the cow get the nutrients it needs from the grass. Once their rumen is full, cows usually find a place to lie down and then they re-chew their food – this is called chewing their cud.
A cow’s gastric system turns fiber into energy by fermentation, which means breaking down grass (starch) into a form which can be absorbed and used by the cows.
If chickens or pigs eat grass, the grass would simply pass through animals without digestion.
One more thing!
Do you want to learn more about beef? Below are a few popular beef posts and recipes you may like. In addition, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a farmers perspective.
- Farm Life: How We Feed Cows
- Why Do Cattle Have Ear Tags?
- What’s the Difference Between a Steer vs Bull? Cow vs Heifer?
- 27 Amazing Facts About Cows That Will Impress Your Friends
- Do Cows Have Teeth?
- Buying a Cow. How Much Beef Is It?
We have a weekly e-newsletter where we share about farm happenings, beef recipes, and when our next beef will be available to order. When you sign up, you’ll get a cheat sheet with 9-must-ask questions before buying beef directly from a farmer.