Just like people, cows need a complete and balanced diet.
People get their balanced diet by eating a variety of foods with different vitamins and minerals. If you eat steak, your body gets nutrients like vitamin B12, zinc, iron and selenium, just to name a few. If you have a kale salad with your steak, your body enjoys vitamin K and vitamin A.
You already know that — but how do cows get all of the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy?
What do cows eat so that they get a complete and balanced diet?
Grass – but the answer isn’t really that simple.
Grass is surprisingly complex.
When most people look at grass, they say it looks good if it’s green and mowed.
When a Farmer looks at grass, they see nutrition. They know that to get the best meat, you have to have good grass. In fact, grass is so important that college classes are devoted to teaching farmers how to manage it and keep it as healthy as possible.
Why can cows just eat grass when people need a balanced diet of different foods to be healthy?
Cows have a very different digestive system from humans, which lets them thrive on a diet predominantly made up of grass.
The biggest difference is in the stomach. For humans, we sallow our food and our stomachs are sort of like a holding tank where digestion begins, and it continues as it goes throughout our body.
Cows have a four-chamber stomach (which we’ve talked about before here). 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. 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.
Does grass have different nutrient levels throughout the year?
Yes. And because grass is our cattle’s source of nutrients, we pay close attention to it all year long.
In general, pasture grasses have two stages of growth—vegetative (spring growth) and mature (mid-to-late summer). Usually, the nutrient content is highest during the spring when there is new growth, good temperatures and rainfall. Mature or dormant grass in late fall and winter has much lower energy and protein content and overall digestibility when compared to a spring pasture.
For example, when we have a wet winter and spring, we know that will increase the soil moisture level. This in turn means better grass for the livestock to eat during the spring and summer. It also means we will usually be able to make more hay per field, which we will use during the upcoming winter.
Whether or not the grass has lots of nutrients or not will also affect the beef a little. If there are lots of nutrients, like in spring grass, cows will convert the extra nutrients to fat. Conversely, if there are less nutrients in the grass, like dormant fall grass, cows use all of the nutrients immediately.
Is it possible for grass to lack the nutrients a cow needs?
If it’s been an extremely dry spring or summer, or a really long winter, there are times the grass doesn’t have the nutrients it needs to keep our cows healthy. When that happens, we will occasionally supplement our cattle’s diet so that they stay healthy. This is similar to a person taking a multi-vitamin to make up for whatever nutrients they’re not getting from their daily diet. Supplements for cows include things like molasses; high protein range cubes that are all-natural; or a diet designed by our veterinarian or cow nutritionist.
Earlier you said that farmers “manage grass.” How do you manage grass?
One of the ways we manage our grass is through “rotational grazing”. This is an agriculture-term that means we move cows from one field to the next so that they’re always getting the best grass. It also gives the grass and field a chance to rest and grow.
We have several large pastures, and we rotate cows to those pastures every three to four weeks so they get new grass. This extends the life of grass because cows eat it at just the right height (more on the height later).
If we didn’t do rotational grazing our fields would have what’s called “spot grazing.” Cows like to graze and eat, but they’re also somewhat selective (but not nearly as picky as horses). Cows will always eat their favorite grass first. This means in a pasture containing several grass species, a patchy grazing pattern can develop because cows leave their least-favorite grass until last.
What’s the right grass height for grazing?
Our cows are usually moved to pastures that have grass about four to six inches tall. The reason for this is because we want them to eat the grass before it starts to form a seed. When grass starts to form a seed, the plant has matured and it stops making nutrients. We want our cattle to get all the nutrients they can, so if they’re in fields with grass about four to six inches tall, the grass is still making nutrients.
In case you’re asking, “what’s a seed?” You’ve probably seen it before in your own front yard. It’s what happens when you don’t mow grass for a really long time and a seed head form at the top of the grass.
What does an ideal pasture look like?
An ideal pasture has a mixed type of grass and legumes. Legumes have a higher protein level than most grass, and may stay greener after some of the pasture grasses mature and lose nutrient quality.
Don’t let the word “legume” scare you. A legume is a fancy horticulture word for plants like clover, lentils, alfafa, and beans.
Our pastures have several different types of legumes, including clover. In fact, one of the reasons we named our business “Clover Meadows Beef” is because of the clover in our fields.
Is your grass treated with anything?
We fertilize our grass to make sure that it’s as healthy as possible. This sometimes raises questions about “what’s in fertilizer”, so let us explain.
Fertilizer is made up of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), which are the three basic elements of all plant life (you’ll see “NPK” on just about any bag of fertilizer you buy for your own yard too). When we fertilize, we’re adding back in the natural elements that were in the grass originally.
Applying fertilizer is something we take very seriously since it’s so important that our grass is healthy. Before applying any fertilizer, we do soil tests and get professional recommendations on what our grass may need.
Additionally, we apply Lime to the fields every three to five years based on soil tests. Lime helps keep our fields healthy because it helps release more nutrients from the soil by balancing the soil pH. Lime also contains calcium and magnesium — which makes those nutrients more available for the grasses.
The average cow we raise has 175 pounds of calcium in their bodies. The lime helps keep their calcium levels where they should be while they’re growing. Without added lime, over the years the soil would deplete of calcium.
Why do farmers sometimes burn the grass in their fields?
When a farmer burns a field he is adding organic matter back into the soil and decreasing unwanted plants and brush that may decrease nutrition.
How much grass (acres) do you need to feed a cow?
That depends on the pasture. A good pasture in Missouri with lots of high quality grass may support one cow per two acres during a good growing year.
A pasture with sparser grass (like you find in northwestern states like Montana and Wyoming) may only support one cow on 50 acres or more.
How much do cows eat in a day?
A cow will consume about 2.5-3% of their body weight a day. If the cow weights, 1,000 pounds, that means they’re eating 25-30 pounds of grass and legumes a day.
One more thing!
Do you want to learn more about beef? Here are a few other beef posts and recipes you may like. Plus, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a farmers perspective.