SHOULD CATTLE REALLY BE EATING CORN?

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feedlot cattleI’ve heard people say that it’s “unnatural for cows to eat corn.” As someone who studies what cattle eat for a living, I’m perplexed. Let’s talk.

HERE’S WHY CORN IS OK FOR CATTLE TO EAT:

  1. Cattle can easily digest and convert corn to milk and meat
  2. It’s an excellent energy source
  3. Corn is tasty, even for cattle

Want to know more? Read on.

Corn isn’t the only thing cattle are eating. As an animal nutritionist, I want every bite of feed that an animal takes to be nutritionally perfect. We analyze animal feed (which is generally a blend of grass and grains, including corn) to see what nutrients their diet has or might be deficient in. Oftentimes we design a mineral mixture to meet the requirements of that particular feed mix to ensure the animals have everything they need to grow and stay healthy. Even cattle eating grass need their diet fortified with a vitamin and mineral supplement!

Next, consider the fact that cattle are ruminants – their digestive system is very different from ours. I like to call cattle “the original recyclers” because they have an incredibly adaptable digestive system that can convert many different feed sources into meat and milk. Cattle can eat everything from the corn kernels to the corn stalks. The adaptability of the bovine digestive system helps farmers be more sustainable by using every part of the plant.

Corn is an excellent energy source for cattle, too. From a plant perspective, corn is a grass – it just happens to be a much more nutritious grass than the stuff that’s growing in your yard. The starch and protein that the corn kernel provides help cattle grow and thrive.

Have I mentioned that cattle enjoy eating corn? In my experience, they would choose corn over grass seven days a week and twice on Sunday. Farmers are not “forcing” their cattle to eat corn. More than likely, it is more trouble keeping the cattle from getting into the corn when they’re not supposed to, kind of like you might have trouble keeping your kids out of the cookie jar!

I hope this puts your mind at ease. Farmers and animal nutritionists truly do have the animals’ best interest in mind. If you have questions about why we do what we do, just ask us.

Dr. Josh McCann
Assistant Professor, University of Illinois

Dr. McCann studies the influence of nutrition on metabolism and growth of feedlot cattle by characterizing ruminal fermentation, the gut microbiome, and muscle development – i.e. he’s a nutritionist for cattle. His work contributes to the efficiency and sustainability of cattle farms providing high quality beef to consumers. 

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