Biologically, cows are herbivores. Their large, grinding bottom teeth and complex stomachs are perfect for extracting all the nutrients they need from grass and other foliage.
Although grazing cattle are herbivores by nature, farmers may choose to supplement their cows’ diets with animal feed, which occasionally contains small amounts of animal fats or other sources of animal proteins. This is more likely the case for dairy cows, who spend much of their time in the milking shed and thus are unable to forage freely, and for cows in pastures with low nutritional quality.
In this article, we’ll look in detail at the diet of cows, figure out what they can and can’t eat, and how the dairy cattle diet compares to that of beef cattle.
Herbivores, Carnivores or Omnivores?
a) Are they Herbivores?
Yes, cows are herbivores.
Herbivores are animals that only eat fruits, vegetables, plants and foliage. They do not eat any meat or by-products of meat. They usually have also evolved to have digestive systems that only process foliage. This means that if you fed a herbivore meat, it would probably get sick.
Animals that are herbivores are lower in the food chain and have many meat-eating predators to look out for. Examples include rabbits, deer and squirrels. While cows are domesticated animals, they usually don’t have to worry about predators, but they of course are bred to be eaten by humans!
b) Are they Carnivores?
Cows don’t have any traits of carnivorous animals.
Carnivores are animals that only eat meat. Examples include wolves and alligators. These types of animals are usually higher up in the food chain. They usually have sharper teeth, digestive systems that have evolved to process meat, and are instinctive hunters.
While we will often classify most animals that eat meat as ‘carnivores’, technically any animal that also eats plants, fruit and vegetables are called omnivores.
c) Are they Omnivores?
Cows don’t naturally choose to eat meat so they’re not omnivores.
Omnivores are animals that eat both plants and meat. Many opportunistic and scavenger animals fit in this category. These animals will eat meat when the opportunity arises, such as when they find a bird carcass. But they will also happily rummage through bushes for edible foliage and fruits.
A typical example of an omnivore is a Black Bear. Black Bears will usually eat berries on a daily basis, but will eat meat if it is easy to catch.
Why are Cows Herbivores?
Naturally, cows are designed to only eat plants. We know this because:
- Their digestive systems are designed for digesting plants and foliage.
- Their teeth are dull and designed to process plants, not tough meat.
- They will not naturally try to hunt animals or consume dead meat.
1. Their Digestive System is Designed for Foliage
Cows belong to a family of herbivores called ruminants. Ruminants have four chambers in their stomachs. Each is designed specially to process food in a unique way, allowing the digestion of hard-to-digest foliage. The design of this stomach shows us that meats have not been in the cow’s diet historically.
A cow’s first of four stomach chambers is called the ‘rumen’, and this is the stomach that stores food before it’s chewed. The cow gathers the food, stores it in the first stomach, then regurgitates it when it’s ready to chew it. The regurgitation of food is known as ‘chewing cud’. This practice is believed to be a defence mechanism to allow cows to retreat to a safe space to eat their food.
Once a cow has chewed its cud, the food moves to the second and third stomachs (known as the reticulum and omasum) where hard to digest foliage is broken down with microbes. So, when the food reaches the forth stomach (known as the ‘true stomach’), the foliage is digestible.
Imagine if you had the diet of a cow – hay and grass! You’d feel quite sick. But this unique digestive system makes it possible for them to live off foliage, making them great herbivores.
Other ruminants include deer, sheep, antelopes, giraffes and cows.
2. Their Teeth aren’t Designed to Chew Meat
It might come as a surprise to you that cows don’t have top teeth! So, chewing meat would probably be very hard for them.
Most carnivorous and omnivorous animals rely on their ‘canine teeth’ to tear meet. You can feel your own canine teeth in your mouth – it’s the long sharp top tooth on each side of your top row of teeth.
Without canine teeth (or even a top row of teeth at all), cows can’t chew up meat.
Instead, they will spend a long time chewing grass around in their mouth to break it down. They grind their dull bottom teeth against the top pad of their mouth (known as the dental pad) until the grass is all chewed up. Saliva plays a big part in this process, too.
3. They Don’t Try to Hunt Other Animals
Unlike your cat, you’ll never find a cow crouching down and sneaking up on a bird. This is quite simply because it doesn’t enter a cow’s mind to eat an animal. They haven’t developed that genetic instinct to hunt.
This makes cows quite peaceful animals, and you won’t find too many cows out to attack you. Combine this with the fact that wild female oxen (the descendants of cows) were historically protected in their herds by the bulls of the herd, meaning they’ve always been quite placid animals.
Are Cows becoming Carnivores?
Some people may claim that cows are being fed meat by farmers. While in some cases this may be true, it’s very uncommon these days due to strict regulations. If a cow is fed a meat by-product by farmers, it would be very minimal and potentially even accidental.
In fact, cows eating meat is known to be a cause of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). You probably know this disease as Mad Cow Disease.
Mad Cow Disease was first found in the UK in the 1960s when farmers began feeding cattle meat due to increasing soy prices. This led to the rise of Mad Cow Disease, which killed cattle by degenerating their brains and spinal cords.
Farmers want to avoid Mad Cow Disease in their stock at all costs, so they are wise not to feed cows meat. An outbreak of disease in a herd can lead to mass culling and can put farms out of business overnight.
In conclusion, cows are biologically herbivores although occasionally cows end up eating a small amount of animal material when it’s included with their feed.
Cows feed mostly on grass and other plants, but will gladly munch on apples, potatoes, carrots, and leafy greens if they come across them while foraging.
Beef cattle tend to be left to their own devices and forage in the wild more than dairy cows, which generally have their diet topped up with animal feed due to the additional nutrients and energy required to be constantly producing milk.
There are very strict regulations on what can be included in animal feeds, to protect the food supply from diseases like BSE.