Sheep, Cattle, and Goats belong to the ruminant classification of animals of which there are 150 species. Ruminants are characterized by their four–chambered stomach. The four compartments: the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum and the abomasum. Those four chambers are what turns grassland into food and that pretty much describes Wyoming. We don’t have crop lands, we have grasslands. What few crops we do raise is mainly hay. Of course that is for the ruminants.
A ruminant chews, swallows the roughage into the first chamber – the rumen, then regurgitates it back up later to be chewed on again. The reason for this is, it breaks down the food not only by the grinding motion but by using bacterial fermentation which requires a neutral pH, or a balance between acidity and alkaline. To accomplish this, the ruminants excretes a buffer, (bicarbonate) from the salivary glands while chewing their cud. Thus, cud-chewing (rumination) promotes saliva production and rumen health. Cattle naturally chew their cud for 6 to 8 hours a day.
So what happens when you feed grains and processed feeds? They don’t require as much cud chewing – you change the acid/alkaline balance in the stomach. You see this in feedlots. The cattle have a tendency to bloat and some develop ulcers. It is why half of the ant-acids in this country are used by feedlots. We are doing what livestock were never meant to do, eat large amounts of food quickly.
But in our society the main goal is to put weight as quickly as possible on our livestock and the commercial feeds do just this. A feedlot owner does not want their beef sitting around chewing their cud for 6 to 8 hours. They want them eating, and eating, and putting on weight as quickly as possible. It is what makes them money.
Yet it is the aged animals that have the greatest depth of flavor in their meat. It takes a lot of money to raise cattle to an old age and hence, there are only a few producers in the world who do so for people with deep pockets. This flavor is not found in the young. So how come we as a society think we need commercial feeds? It makes companies a great deal of money and it puts weigh ton quickly. And I see hundreds who just don’t think hay or pasture is enough. They think scientists have all the answers. But before scientists there was nature. She has been taking care of animals for centuries. We have forgotten her in the garden, pastures, and animals that grace our places.
I’ve been working my way back to being a partner with her. I would call her the master gardener, the master rancher. We can speed up her processes but we can’t beat them, hence, a master. I believe animals need optimal pasture to maximize health and excellent hay when not in pasture. Yes, there are areas of the country which are low in certain minerals like selenium. That is why the best pastures are those with a great deal of variety of forages. Those that have forage that matures at different times during the season, and a variety of forage so that there is a differing amounts of nutrients.
As we sometimes take supplements to aid our health, like vitamin D in our area, livestock need such things on occasion. For goats it’s best to use a loose mineral but other animals a mineral block works just as well. Goats need lots of copper while sheep are sensitive to it. So yes, you need to know your livestock’s nutritional needs and what your pasture or hay have to offer.
But as for me, rather than worrying about what’s on the label of a commercial feed, I’ll focus on the hay I buy and pastures. It’s what ruminants were designed to eat. If you have poor hay or pasture, then reach for the bag from the store. If you have good pasture and excellent hay, then you won’t need it unless you need to put weight on an animal in a hurry. That is what commercial feeds are designed to do.
Yes, the natural way takes a bit longer but the results are greater too. Naturally fed means a higher nutritional level for the animal and you as you consume their products. I know I don’t ever need baking soda for my goats, which is a common practice. They don’t need it because they are chewing their cud, producing natural digestive juices.
My 3 year old buck goat weighs at least 300 pounds. He barely gets any grain. Just enough to convince him to move to another pen without leading him and that is a few times a year. He only has up to 4 does to breed. Our 2 year old doe goats rival the size of their mom, which we lovingly call The Tank, and they kid their first year. The grain they get is a home mix that they consume while being milked. Otherwise, they’d never get up onto the milking stand. I keep grain to a minimum. It has saved me a lot of money and vet bills.
I was once one of those commercial feed sack scourers. I’ve reformed and realized, nature knows what she’s doing after all. My animals have never looked better.
One more thing you might be wondering about. What about milk, babies consume while young? Where does it go? The esophageal grooves allows milk to bypass the rumen which is the first chamber and directly deposits it into the abomasum, the last chamber. Hence, why we elevate the head a bit and stretch out the neck lightly when we bottle feed. As kids, goats, calves, and sheep begin to nibble on solids, usually the end of the first week, the first chambers begin to develop.
So if you are wondering what to feed your ruminant, forage, forage, forage and go easy on the grain and commercial feeds.