Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Digestive preparations

I just mentioned in a recent post that we adjust our feeding schedule based things like bad weather. Today I was busy preparing for what is forecasted to be a nasty winter blizzard starting around midnight tonight.
The radio was saying they expect 30+ mph winds, 6-10 inches of snow, temperatures ranging from zero to 30 below doesn't sound fun.

The first thing I did was gather these 26 cows out of the pasture neighboring where they are supposed to be. After preg checking we just turned the cows into this pasture, and they typically make their way to the next one out of habit. If they don't, most come when you start feeding. The gates between the two pastures are left open, because when we're feeding usually the cows come every day and it isn't an issue.
But the nice weather this year...and the questionable intelligence level of these individuals...resulted in them never coming to feed. This wasn't a big deal with the very nice temperatures we've had so far this winter. The abundant left over grass was more than enough for these cows to thrive on so far.

But the impending blizzard, and the fact that we want these cows to come to feed along with everyone else, meant I gathered and trailed them through this gate to the proper pasture. Then I closed the gate, trailed them down to water, and fed everyone a double ration to get their energy levels up before the cold weather hits.
As I also mentioned the linked post, we feed our cows every other day. I just fed these cows yesterday, but gave them more hay today so they'll be ready for the wind, snow and cold.

Here they are trailing into feed.

I also briefly mentioned that a cow has a ruminant stomach, which allows them to utilize forages, or feedstuffs, over 24, or 48, hour periods.
This ruminant stomach is separated into four compartments.

When the cow swallows a mouth full of hay, it has two choices. Heavy, or big, pieces of hay will drop into the Reticulum. From this compartment the cow can regurgitate the feed and chew on it again. This is called chewing her cud, and is something cows do regularly, and is typically done when they're calm and relaxed. This unique ability allows a cow to eat a whole bunch in one sitting, like when I'm feeding a bale of hay, then regurgitate it later and chew it more thoroughly before digesting it. It's like a built in storage/recycling system for food, and is one reason you can feed them a couple days apart.
Smaller, and lighter, pieces of feed go into the Omasum. While the picture doesn't really show it, the cow's stomach will sort the bigger and heavier pieces of feed from the lighter, smaller pieces at the junction of Omasum and Reticulum.
From that point the feed goes on through the Abomasum, to the Rumen, then into the intestines.
Another key aspect of ruminant digestion are the microbes, which are just microscopic bugs, present in a ruminant's stomach. Most of these microbes are in the Rumen compartment. These microbes are what allow the animal to digest feedstuffs. For example, one group of microbes found in the Rumen are called Cellulolytics, and they break down Cellulose, which is the primary component in forages.
Humans and other single-stomached creatures lack the efficiency, and often the ability, to break down roughage's, specifically Cellulose, into a usable energy source. This is why cattle, sheep, and other ruminants are so vital to society. They take the forages found all over the country, and world, that we cannot utilize as humans, and they eat it, and because of their unique stomachs, they are able to convert it to energy to grow and produce a usable food for humans - meat.

Here's what it looks like from the outside. The other thing all this digesting creates is heat. The coarser the forage they're eating, the longer it takes the microbes, or bugs, to eat and process it. The longer it takes the microbes to break it down, the more heat they generate during the process.

So for those reasons I fed the cows a couple older, coarser bales. This means it was forage with bigger stems. While not the highest quality hay we feed, it has a definite place when we want to keep our cows warm.
Grass hay is an example coarser hay, that takes longer to digest. Alfalfa hay, is finer, and microbes can attack and process it faster. So Alfalfa creates energy faster, but it is much shorter lived, while grass is a slower starting, longer lasting form of energy.
We also feed hay that is a combination of the two, to maximize to the benefits of both.

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