“The cow’s in the corn.” From the cow’s point of view, that’s a tasty place to be. Cows like corn. They also like barley, alfalfa, vetch, sugar beets, mangelwurtzels and, in some instances, shredded cardboard. Ruminants, the word for cow–model plant eaters, can eat a remarkable variety of cellulose. Cattle—and sheep, and goats and yaks—only look like they are standing around doing nothing for hours a day. Actually they spend most of their time operating a very complex, four-chambered digestive system that processes tough fibers into a nutritious pulp to keep the cow running and replicating herself. While she’s at it, she manages to turn out surplus milk while her beef breed sisters work on sirloins, two concentrated protein sources appealing to omnivores like ourselves. Think of a cow as an four-legged fermentation tank. She’s similar to a Budweiser wort vat but far more sophisticated. It takes Anheiser Busch weeks of liquefying, measuring, mashing, extracting, lautering, and filtering to accomplish what our cow manages all by herself while chewing her cud under a tree or loitering in the back pasture, looking bored. She even sorts out all the extraneous stuff she consumed (baling wire, rocks, nails) in her reticulum before she moves on to the business of that cud. All the plants she ate earlier are in it, brought up from the second of her stomach chambers to be chewed thoroughly, broken down by her saliva. Well-chewed, the cud passes to another stomach chamber to be rehydrated and rechurned. While she’s at it, the cow absorbs fatty acids from the slurry. We actually do not know what else happens in the omasum, that third chamber. Surprisingly, for an animal domesticated for thousands of years, the cow remain a bit of a mystery. She supervises a complex chemistry, after all, and she keeps it to herself. Finally, the sorted, chomped, and “working” raw material moves to the stomach where the cow actually digests.
The complicated cow requires thoughtful husbandry. Cattle tip the scales at two thousand pounds. Their four chambered stomach, when full, weighs twenty-five per cent of their total weight. Imagine what a bellyache feels like. Cows, although quite flexible about their food, literally cannot stomach sudden changes. They must adjust their chemistry gradually or risk complications. They also have specific requirements about how much grass to legumes to concentrates (grains are a concentrate) they can properly digest. Ask a Budweiser brew master. It takes skill to perfect fermentation. Too much grain and cows suffer acid stomach. That’s painful. Acid can lead to bloat, squeezing the victims hearts and lungs. That’s life threatening. Even if the overfed subject looks sound, a heavy grain diet can damage her liver. The modern cow, unlike her ancestors, puts up with a lot due to the modern consumer’s love of tender, fatty, corn-fed beef.
Until less than one hundred years ago, cows mostly ate forage and silage, a sort of bovine sauerkraut made from chopped, fermented young corn complete with stalks. Beef cattle might be finished on mature corn but it never replaced pasture feeding. On the way to market, cattle ate both. Now even dairy cows eat fairly concentrated rations to increase milk production. Beef cattle go on a heavy grain diet in feedlots. Had she been asked, no cow would ever identify the feedlot as her happy place. She stands on a small mountain of manure surrounded by hundreds of others of her kind and thousands of flies. Like slum dwellers everywhere, feedlot inhabitants suffer from overcrowding. To keep them healthy, or at least not obviously sick, feedlot operators must dose everybody with antibiotics. These future rib roasts have nothing to do except swat flies and eat rations that may ulcerate their livers. Eventually, having made weight, they’ll be stuffed in a truck with a hundred of their closest friends, unloaded at a packing plant onto the killing floor where somebody fatally knocks you on the head and then hooks you upside down on a conveyor that delivers you to a line of humans with long knives who dismantle parts of you as you as you pass by. The only humane part of the entire scenario occurs when they clout you over the head. It’s nearly instantaneous, unlike your time in the feedlot gulag.
People and ruminants have lived co-dependently for a long time. Only recently however, and only in developed countries have most domestic animals been viewed strictly as product rather than as partners in the agricultural enterprise. When animals provided the farmer motive power and farmers raised crops and cattle both to feed themselves and generate income, usually the human half of the equation respected health and welfare requirements of their animal contingent. With the modern feedlot operating as a middleman, omnivores can too easily ignore what being a product rather than a partner in the food cycle really means.