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Cattle Efficiency Starts with a Healthy Rumen

Recently we were lucky enough to host our local county fair and livestock show, lots of uncertainty due to COVID-19. During the week there was a lot of discussion about issues youth had experienced with their animals including bloat, weight loss, loose manure, sickness, etc. This got me thinking about a ruminant nutrition for show animals. Although the discussion revolved around raising animals for show, the same information can very easily be applied to our commercial livestock herds as well. We’ve often heard the saying, “you feed the bacteria in the rumen, the bacteria feed the cow.” In general, there is a lot of truth to that statement, the bacteria in the rumen are the powerhouse to maintain the energy demands of the cow at various stages of life. Let’s take a closer look at how important maintaining rumen health is to the performance of your animals.

Let’s start with the basics, as many of you already know, cattle optimize the energy derived from fermentation in the rumen. This energy is derived from volatile fatty acids (VFA) created by the bacteria in the rumen. Now there are multiple types of bacteria in the rumen and each play a role in how healthy and efficient the rumen is at any given time. Since 80% of the energy of a cow is derived from the VFA’s, keeping those bacteria happy and healthy is very important. It’s also important to note that bacteria vary in what type of feed stuffs they break down. This includes specialized bacteria for forages, protein, carbs and more. Maintaining a healthy pH in the rumen allows for an ideal environment for the bacteria to thrive. Ideally the rumen should be between 5.6 and 6.3 in pH. Extremes in pH can cause bacteria to be inefficient or die. For example, if the pH is to low, microbes for fiber tend to die off, to contrast, if pH is too high, microbes for starch will die off. Therefore, it’s very important to maintain consistency in feedstuffs for cattle, drastic changes can alter rumen activity and cause issues like scours and bloat.

A key point to remember is that the animal’s immune system also relies on a healthy digestive system. In fact, almost 80% of the cow’s immune system starts at the digestive system. In general, if they digestive system is operating normally, exposure to outside bacteria and stressors can be less drastic to the animal. If you are feeding stockers, pushing too hard can sometimes cause digestive interruptions leading to sickness and thus lack of feed intake.

Water intake is critical, repeat, it’s critical. Water allows many other functions in the body to work properly so the animal is comfortable and efficient. Let’s start with feed intake, saliva is 98% water and cattle must increase the moisture content of their food to be able swallow. Feedstuffs such as forages need to be brought to around 80% moisture, and 50%-60% for concentrates. Saliva also contains sodium bicarbonate which helps mediate the rumen pH and helps control bloat. Just as important, many functions of the body require water such as blood, muscle and thermal regulation. If water intake is too low, the animal can start pulling from these sources and decrease the efficiency of growth and development.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that changes of feed stuffs need to be done gradually. If you’re changing from a concentrate-based diet to grass-fed it needs to be done over time. Bacteria are specialized and it takes time to grow the proper number of bacteria for different types of feed. As discussed before, rumination creates energy. One of the forms of energy created is heat, therefore water and shade are important for maintain a healthy thermo level in the animal. It’s always important to talk with your feed rep, Extension Agent and fellow cattlemen on ways to ensure your animals are healthy and efficient.