Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, at least not yet anyway. But with a basic understanding on how a ruminant digestive system works, beef producers could take the guesswork out of their management while improving feed efficiency and reducing feed costs.

Woolsey cassidy
Managing Editor / Ag Proud – Idaho
Cassidy is a contributing editor to Progressive Cattle and Progressive Forage magazines.

According to Blaine Corners, a senior nutritionist and cattle technician at Zoetis, most producers don’t fully understand the ruminant digestive system unless they have been in a research program or have taken some nutrition courses.

Because it’s the key component to producing efficient animals, he says it is important producers make every effort to understand how it works.

“I like to compare most beef producers’ understanding of nutrition to a hot dog,” Corners says. “They can read on the package that it is made with chicken, pork and beef, and when they eat it they know what it is going to taste like, but they don’t always know what happened to get it into that form.

Likewise, most producers know if they feed a little of this and a little of that, the animal will gain more, but they don’t understand a lot of the why.”


Going back to the basics

Producers that have a basic understanding of the ruminant system know there are four compartments to a ruminant animal’s stomach: rumen, reticulum, omasum and the abomasum. Together, this unique system allows cattle to digest feed sources other livestock cannot. The key is getting the most nutrients possible from the feedstuffs provided, Corners says.

As a review, the rumen is the first and largest compartment of the animal’s stomach. It can hold up to 50 gallons of digested feed and contains billions of rumen bacteria that help convert the material into a usable feed source for the animal.

If the animal consumes feedstuffs the bacteria can readily use, the population will grow, allowing the animal to digest more food as it eats.

Next in the process is the reticulum, which is the compartment attached to the rumen that looks similar to honeycomb. This organ stops large food particles from entering the next section of the stomach before they are properly digested.

Once the animal regurgitates, re-chews and re-swallows, the feed is ready to move to the omasum, where much of the water left in the feed is filtered back to the rumen. In the final stages of the digestive system, the feed reaches the abomasum, which is also known as the “true stomach” because it is similar to a stomach in a non-ruminant animal.

It has a low pH and stores enzymes, which help digest the proteins in the feed before it makes its way into the small intestine. The undigestible material then moves to the large intestine, where excess moisture is absorbed and fecal material is formed.

Be aware of what you’re feeding

Although the process may be the same, the concept varies for cattle on forage as opposed to cattle on grain, says Brian Rude, a ruminant specialist at Mississippi State University. To get the most nutrients out of forages, large populations of fiber-consuming microbes have to be present.

For example, in low- and medium-quality forages, a little corn (up to 0.35 percent of bodyweight) will actually improve forage digestion. When you go beyond that, forage digestion crashes and the fiber microbes revert over to starch-digesters, resulting in higher production costs.

“Producers should be aware of how much they are feeding their cattle and why,” Rude explains. “With a basic ruminant knowledge, producers are better prepared to make decisions based on what they are feeding and supplementing those cattle. They can make better decisions about dietary changes so that if they choose to change their diet, they will know how they are going to properly go about that change.”

In addition to feed, water is also an extremely important element in their diet, he says. Not only is it found in every cell of the body, but it helps carry nutrients and aids in the formation of fecal material.

Without plenty of fresh water, the animal’s performance can depress more quickly than any other nutrient deficiency. Supplying an ample amount of water is important at all times of the year and is vital in the digestive process.

Keep the bacteria happy

Dale Zobell, a beef cattle specialist at Utah State University, also points out that cattle are not the only thing producers are feeding. As stated in the ruminant’s function, the bacteria breaks down the feedstuffs and converts into a usable nutrient for the animal.

When the animal consumes its feed, the bacteria population is the first to use it. “If the animal doesn’t eat what the bacteria can use, then the population will decrease,” Zobell says. “That is why experts stress the importance of keeping the bacteria happy – because if you don’t, you are not going to get any production on that ruminant animal.”

Not only do the microbes help break down and convert the food to a usable form, they also supply B vitamins, quality protein, volatile fatty acids and detoxify toxic compounds in the process. With the help of these microbial populations, producers are able to improve productivity in their animals if they understand how and what makes them work.

Corners also adds that when producers are looking at feeding or supplementing their cattle, they shouldn’t settle for the cheapest or easiest supplement.

“Sometimes producers think ‘well, this is cheap, and if a little is good, a lot is better’ and more times than not; that isn’t the case,” Corners says. “If a little bit of something is good, a lot is not necessarily better, and that’s where I think the value of understanding this system lies.”

The take-home message

For the average producer, nutrition and the digestive process can be a tough bite to swallow. But with the help of cooperative extension agents, nutritionists, veterinarians and feed businesses, they can gain a better understanding and learn how to put their knowledge into action. To help simplify, here are seven points these professionals encourage producers to know off-hand:

1. Microbes, primarily bacteria, do the heavy lifting of digestion.

2. These microbes are easily manipulated, for better or worse.

3. Bacteria found in the rumen of pasture cattle differ from those found in an animal in a finishing yard.

4. Proper supplementation (ingredients and levels) can improve forage digestibility.

5. Growth can be limited by a variety of factors. Good nutrition strives to make genetic potential the limiter – not dietary factors.

6. Good management/husbandry practices are always the foundation to build efficient, productive systems on.

7. Productivity is possible when health and nutrition are in sync and are properly managed.

Corners believes the value of this knowledge comes from the increased trust and acceptance in the feed recommendations given by an industry partner. If a producer understands why a change needs to be made, they will be better prepared to follow through with recommendations, even if it means at a higher cost.

“When I make a recommendation to a producer to quit buying peanut pellets for supplementing stocker cattle and to begin buying a blend of soyhulls, corn gluten and cottonseed meal at a higher cost, I need them to trust me and do it,” he says. “If a producer understands basic nutrition, I can explain available energy, protein levels and the subsequent effect on forage digestibility in the ration and they will understand."

"Without that trust and basic knowledge, getting a producer to commit to higher feed costs based on something I simply recommend is a much harder leap to take.”

Having a basic knowledge of the ruminant digestive system and the role of various nutrients is important for beef producers looking to enhance their feeding program.

It can also provide the background information necessary to prevent and resolve problems in their herd’s diet. The more a producer learns, the more he or she can improve productivity.  end mark

PHOTO: An understanding of the ruminant digestive process is critical for effective feeding and management. Photo courtesy of Cassidy Woolsey.

Quiz: How well do you know ruminant nutrition?

1. True or False: Ruminant animals have four stomachs. 
(False, they have four compartments in their stomach)

2. The most important nutrient that is the basis of cattle production is:
(Answer is water; other choices are forage, grain and fat)

3. How much corn can a 600-pound calf be supplemented with?
(Answer is 2.1 pounds max. Other choices would be 1.2 pounds, 2.8 pounds, or 4.5 pounds.)

4. It is advised and profitable to supplement cattle daily with:
(Answer is mineral. Other choices would be energy, protein and probiotics).

5. The value of understanding basic nutrition is to:

a. Understand why supplements work
b. Be able to have meaningful discussions with trusted advisers
c. Be able to give educated judgments on new products presented to you
d. Reduce operating costs to the very lowest
e. A,B,C

(The answer would be (e) A,B,C)