Sunday, November 29, 2009

Healthy eating - a lesson on digestion

This is not so much about your digestion as that of the cows and why it is important to us humans.

I was a vegetarian for 15 years.  Continued slips in overall health finally got my attention and I started reading something besides Vegetarian Times and books that supported my views.  At some time, we have to be brave enough to examine opposing views.  My poor health pushed me to be brave.

In part, I was a vegetarian for ethical reasons, believing that vegetarianism led to best use of the soil (it doesn't), that it was a sin to kill animals to eat them (it isn't), and that raising animals was "factory farming" and raising spinach wasn't (wrong in part on both counts).

If you are a vegetarian, you may be ready to quit reading right now, but vegetarians especially need to read this.  Be brave; read this opposing view.

Let's start with the biggest myth and the one I am focusing on today - that it takes sixteen pounds (or four pounds or six pounds, depending on which vegetarian publication you are reading) of grain to make one pound of beef.  I even got a letter published in Times or Newsweek, can't remember which, spouting this "fact" during my vegetarian days.  And they published it.  No fact checking there!

Here is the truth.  It takes zero pounds of grain to make one pound of beef.  Yes, that is right, ZERO pounds!  And now I get to my lesson on digestion.

Ruminants include bovines (often referred to as cows, but technically, "cow" only refers to the female bovine), goats and sheep, to name the three that most are familiar with.  Their systems are designed to process grass, which is cellulose.  I can't digest cellulose, you can't digest cellulose, but the female ruminant can, and then she very efficiently turns it into milk, which I CAN digest, and her brothers (meat producing bovines are steers, meat producing goats and lambs are wethers), efficiently turn cellulose into meat, which I CAN eat.

Here is how their digestion works.  Ruminants have four stomachs, the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum and the abomasum.  The last in line, the abomasum, is pretty much like our stomachs, lined with glands similar to ours, and secretions of hydrocholic acid and digestive enzymes, same as ours.  The three stomachs that precede it are the factories that turn the cellulose into something the final stomach can digest.

The first of these, the rumen, can hold up to 25 pounds of grasses.  Conditions are right for the growth of microbes that promote fermentation.  It is also the stomach that provides the "cud" that the cow will chew while resting.  Grain fed cows will not chew the cud as much, if at all, since the grain is small and not in need of further processing.  However, it is believed that cud chewing releases nutrients.  I don't think it is out of line to say that grain fed animals will not extract the nutrients from their feed that their grass fed sisters and brothers will.  And this may have something to do with CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids) being four to five times higher in ruminants fed grass only, CLAs that we need to boost our immune systems against cancer, diabetes and heart trouble.  

On to the next stomach.  The reticulum hopefully gets a very small workout in our animals here on my farm.  It is where nails and other indigestible sharp objects will drop out.  Heavy or dense feed would fall into this stomach; our cows don't get any of that, being strictly grass and hay fed.  I think it is significant that the stomach that deals with nails also has to deal with grain.  There is a message there.

The next stomach, the omasum, absorbs water and feed material - the hay and grass that has proceeded through the first two stomachs.  The feed material between the leaves of tissue that line this stomach will be drier than that found in the other compartments.

Then it is on to the abomasum, the one that closely resembles our stomachs.  By the time the fodder reaches this stomach, it has been converted by the actions of the previous ones into something that would be digestible even by non-ruminant stomachs.

If cows are fed grain, then this optimum system is put out of whack.  The grain will decrease rumination (cud chewing), and aside from the nutrient issues, I can tell you that a cow chewing her cud is a happy cow.  When the cows come into the barn to be milked, if they are chewing their cuds, they are calmer and much easier to handle. 

Eating grain affects the pH of the stomach, decreasing acidity levels of its natural state into higher pH levels that can support the growth of E. coli 0157:H7, or E. coli 57 for short.  Let me elaborate a little here and explain that there are many strains of E. coli, most of which are of no concern to humans.  But E. coli 57 that flourishes in the digestive tracts of ruminants that are fed grain is the one we definitely do not want in our diets.  While there are naysayers out there who dispute this claim, I have not found one study that looked at strictly grass fed animals with no contact with grain fed animals vs. grain fed animals.  The studies have looked at organic vs. non-organic (organic animals are often fed grain), or at grass fed animals that were mixed with grain fed animals and so were exposed to their feces.  Neither is useful in ascertaining the levels of E. coli 57 in grass fed animals.  To my knowledge, there have been no incidences of E. coli 57 from animals on small rotational grazing operations where animals are never fed grain and are not mixed at any time during their lives with grain fed animals.

Back to digestion.  This marvel of ruminant digestion works hand in hand in the circle of life of which we are a part.  Here we have an animal that can live on land that is not fit for cultivation, eating the grasses that we could not eat, spreading manure and urine on the ground while she eats, and over time, improving the soil and increasing our precious topsoil.  And do not overlook the fact that grazing cows can move without diesel fuel.

Bovines need about an acre of grasses and legumes on which to subsist, and they provide enough fertilizer for three acres, a pretty good return, don't you think?  They will increase the depth of the top soil, rather than decrease it as row crops (corn, beans, wheat, spinach, tomatoes, i.e. vegetation) do.  Polyface Farms in Virginia lays claim to increasing the depth of topsoil by inches per year, through intense animal rotation.  Lest you think this is a ho-hum statistic, be aware that vegetation eats top soil.  When you put a seed in the ground, it must eat nutrients out of the soil in order to grow.  It is not some magic; remember that matter may neither be created nor destroyed.  And so the plant builds itself through the absorption of the nutrients in the top soil.  Those nutrients must be replaced or the depth of the topsoil shrinks.  In the Midwest, where I live, the topsoil when the buffalo were running free was about twelve feet deep.  Today average depth of topsoil here is about four inches.  When it is gone, what will we do?  We must farm using methods that increase rather than decrease topsoil.  Enter the cow, with that 3:1 ratio.  Without animals in our circle of life, eventually there will be no life.  If you are dead set against killing animals for food, then partake of milk, cheese, eggs and honey in abundance.  Bees, goats, cows and sheep are all workhorses that improve our land.  Let them be part of it; don't elevate them to some holy realm where the product of their labors must not pass our human lips!

If these marginal lands that are ideal for grazing were to be farmed for grain or vegetables, they would have to be heavily fertilized.  If the land is not organic, it will be fossil fuel fertilizers that are used.  If organic, it will have to be fertilized with complete compost that includes animal manure or it will wear out.  Pure vegetative compost does not contain enough nutrients to feed the soil.  When I pointed this out to a vegetarian, she told me that she didn't use manure and her soil was fine.  I asked what she used, and she said she used worm castings.  I gently pointed out that worms are not vegetables, that she was in fact using worm manure.  And whether organic or not, it will be farmed with machinery that is powered by fossil fuels.  Hundreds of small animals will die as the farm equipment plows, cultivates and harvests. 

I have come to believe that it is some innate fear of death in our culture that leads us to poor decisions in land management and food production.  We are part of a circle of life.  At some time, we will be predators and we will be fodder.  We will eat living things, whether it is a carrot or a steer.  And we will eventually be eaten by the microbes that comprise a good percentage of our soil.  Our acceptance of this circle will help us to accept that something must die so that we might live.  To say that the carrot's life is less important than the steer's, that the weed's life is less important than the carrot's, to create some hierarchy of life that is linear, implies that we are on top, that our lives are the MOST important.  Remembering the circle, whether it is the circle of life or the circle of the seasons, will help us to live better, and to accept death as part of life.


  1. Great post mom. Glad someone put this out there.

  2. Thanks, Val. We are killing ourselves early with our diets. Sigh . . .