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Why Grass-Fed Beef and Lamb - Part 3, Livestock Health

November 8, 2020

While all animals will benefit from being pastured here we are talking about being grass-fed to finish and why that would benefit ruminants specifically.  In Part 1 of this series I defined what grass-fed to finish meant, now I must discuss what type of animals are ruminants.  While we humans are mono-gastric or one stomach, ruminants have a 4 chamber or stomached digestion systems, one of those chambers is called a rumen hence they are called ruminants. So mono-gastric animals like humans, hogs. chickens, raccoons are omnivores.  Their digestions systems are designed to be able to breakdown everything from grains, berries, complex carbohydrates to fat and animal proteins.  As the name implies OMNIvores can eat almost anything.  While all ruminants are first herbivores therefore can only eat plant based diets, the way the rumen functions makes them happier and less stressed and healthier if they eat only grasses and legumes.

The rumen functions like a big fermentation tank.  The grass goes through a series of stomachs after being chewed, sometimes chewed twice in case of cud chewing animals then ends of in the rumen like a green grass slurry where it will sit and ferment like a big old batch of sauerkraut.  The the lower digestion system will leach out the nutrients from this fermented slurry. The grasses in this case are really only half digested which is why cow manure make great fertilizer, why chickens and hogs will actually eat it and why it is still green.

Fresh pasture and dried grasses are the natural diet of all ruminant animals. In factory farms, animals are switched to an unnatural diet based on corn and soy. But corn and soy are not the only ingredients in their “balanced rations.” Many large-scale dairy farmers and feedlot operators save money by feeding the cows “by-product feedstuffs” as well. In general, this means waste products from the manufacture of human food. In particular, it can mean sterilized city garbage, candy, bubble gum, floor sweepings from plants that manufacture animal food, bakery, potato wastes or a scientific blend of pasta and candy.

Here are some of the “by-product feedstuffs commonly used in dairy cattle diets in the Upper Midwest.”*

1) Candy -  Candy products are available through a number of distributors and sometimes directly from smaller plants… They are sometimes fed in their wrappers…. Candies, such as cull gummy bears, lemon drops or gum drops are high in sugar content.
2) Bakery Wastes -  Stale bread and other pastry products from stores or bakeries can be fed to dairy cattle in limited amounts. These products are sometimes fed as received without drying or even removal of the wrappers.
3) Potato Waste - is available in potato processing areas, and includes cull potatoes, French fries and potato chips. Cull fresh potatoes that are not frozen, rotten, or sprouted can be fed to cows either whole or chopped. Potato waste straight from a processing plant may contain varying amounts of inedible or rotten potatoes. French fries and chips contain fats or oils from frying operations.
4) Starch -  Unheated starch is available from some candy manufacturers and sometimes may contain pieces of candy.
5) Pasta is available from pasta plants and some ingredient distributors as straight pasta or in blends with other ingredients, such as candy.

So what happens to these animals after eating this corn and soy based diet with the possibility of eating junk food as well?

1) The first negative consequence of a feedlot diet is a condition called "acidosis." During the normal digestive process, bacteria in the rumen of cattle, bison, or sheep produce a variety of acids. When animals are kept on pasture, they produce copious amounts of saliva that neutralize the acidity. A feedlot diet is low in roughage, so the animals do not ruminate as long nor produce as much saliva. The net result is "acid indigestion."

2) Over time, acidosis can lead to a condition called "rumenitis," which is an inflammation of the wall of the rumen. The inflammation is caused by too much acid and too little roughage. Eventually, the wall of the rumen becomes ulcerated and no longer absorbs nutrients as efficiently.

3) Liver abscesses are a direct consequence of rumenitis. As the rumen wall becomes ulcerated, bacteria are able to pass through the walls and enter the bloodstream. Ultimately, the bacteria are transported to the liver where they cause abscesses. From 15 to 30 percent of feedlot cattle have liver abscesses.

4) Bloat is a fourth consequence of a feedlot diet. All ruminants produce gas as a by-product of digestion. When they are on pasture, they belch up the gas without any difficulty. When they are switched to an artificial diet of grain, the gasses can become trapped by a dense mat of foam. In serious cases of bloat, the rumen becomes so distended with gas that the animal is unable to breathe and dies from asphyxiation.

5) Feedlot polio is yet another direct consequence of switching animals from pasture to grain. When the rumen becomes too acidic, an enzyme called "thiaminase" is produced which destroys thiamin or vitamin B-1. The lack of vitamin B-1 starves the brain of energy and creates paralysis. Cattle that are suffering from feedlot polio are referred to as "brainers."

Typically, feedlot managers try to manage these grain-caused problems with a medicine chest of drugs, including ionophores (to buffer acidity) and antibiotics (to reduce liver abscesses). A more sensible and humane approach is to feed animals their natural diet of pasture, to which they are superbly adapted.

As you can probably tell by now I can go on and on on this subject.  I haven't spent any time on the benefits of the grass diet yet and really don't much need to spend any time on it.  If all a grass based diet did was avoid all the problems of a grain based diet that would be good enough.  But when we explore the benefits to human health next week you will see we inherit the good health of the grass-fed beef though their nutritious meats.

Mike Jones

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