Grass: It’s What Cows Want to Eat

NOTE: This is a guest post from Rob Moir, director of the Ocean River Institute.

I am alarmed by greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere. When I urge people to reduce our carbon footprints, at times I get push back that methane is much worst than carbon and that cows are at fault for the methane. So I went to the cows and spoke with Leslie Cox, live-stock manager of the Hampshire College Farm Center in Amherst MA for my internet talk radio show. During the morning milking, Leslie introduced me to cows with a distinctive white stripe around their middles.  This is a very rare and highly esteemed breed of cow called Dutch Belted. They were milked in the Netherlands as far back as the 1600s.  The cows remind me of Prius cars.  Lean and compact with excellent grazing ability and forage efficiency they produce as much milk as do the larger corn-guzzlers.  The cows handle easily which is fortunate for the college students working the farm.  These cows have been “barn-trained” to do their business outside further benefiting pasturelands.

Dutch Belted cows are known for intelligence and friendly disposition, except for Bethany who is short on the friendly but not intelligence. Bethany is red and white. This is a rare form of an already rare breed of cow. She has sired many offspring who all have names beginning with “B” out of respect for Bethany. Cookie, a black and white cow named for an equally distinctive cookie, is a friendly cow. Milking cows must give birth annually. Leslie watches the calendar tacked up in the barn carefully to be sure birthing happens in late spring when their favorite food, pasture grass, is at its most nutritious. The milking cows are set to pastures containing the highest percentage of protein while the young heifers bound about in a pasture gone to seed where there is more cellulose in plants. They don’t need the extra calories in tender grass. That cows prefer grass to feed was proven when a heifer Leslie sold to a farmer, much to the farmer’s surprise, walked right past the feed trough out into the pasture for a munch.

Pasturing is better for cows than is the feeding of more acidic corn-concentrated pellets or silage. Corn-fed cows are more in need of antibiotics and farmers are more tempted to administer bovine growth hormones. Eating grass, what they’ve been eating for millions of years, cow give off less methane than do trough fed cows. Leslie believes the bigger improvement for reducing green house gas emissions comes about when ruminants play no part in the cattle corn conspiracy. This begins with the tilling of fields for corn releases carbon into the atmosphere. More carbon gas comes from the production of fertilizers spread on the corn fields. The burning of fossil fuels to harvest and transport corn further burdens the atmosphere with pollutants. By promoting grass fed cows and cattle we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save the planet, and enable cows and cattle to be happier. Bethany and Cookie’s offspring, cow and cattle, will be glad you did.

Ocean River Institute educates and assists greater personal involvement in conservation, environmental monitoring, and protecting ecosystems. ORI facilitates the grassroots efforts of groups working at local and regional levels. Moir’s Environmental Dialogues is broadcast live every Wednesday at 9AM Pacific Time on The Green Talk Network. For free iTunes podcast search “Moir’s.” Grass, It’s What Cows Want to Eat is the June 22 broadcast and is episode #47. Next week, we’ll feature Rob’s update on how people are saving dolphins in Florida from dying due to fertilizer applications during the summer.



Fred Krohn
Fred Krohn5 years ago

I have nothing against use of corn and grain as supplemental foods for cattle/cows, but the animals thrive best on mostly grass and hay. Best option would be to use grass and hay as much as practical and only use corn and grain as winter supplement, to which I'd add using crop rotation vice chemical fertiliser for most of the nutrient needs of the plantings and avoiding all but short lived pesticides (like natural nicotine insecticidal soap for bugs and cats for rodents) to avoid poisoning the soil. Our need to slaughter cattle to eat should not be an excuse to abuse them while they live, nor for overeating the product or killing more than we need.

BTW, the local farm can provide better 'sex education' for our kids than most public schools.

Rob Moir
Rob Moir5 years ago

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on why eating grass is best for cows and cattle, better for our health and good for the planet. Yes, with only happy cattle the price of burgers at fast food chains would go up due to less meat on the market (and less corn subsidies). Better if the serving size went down because many people eat too much meat. Nothing turns grass into protein better than cows and cattle. Yet this is no reason to go ridiculous with over consumption. If you are worried about methane, remember people give off more gas when consuming beans than when eating meat. Best to balance diet in moderation.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

If I were a cow, I would definitely like fresh green grass better too. Haha.

clara H.
Clara Hamill5 years ago

I'm glad to see an article not bashing people who eat meat. The vegans need to get a life and stop trying to annoy people pushing their views on people.

Stefania C.
Stefania C.5 years ago

Let cows live ! Stop "raising" them ! They don't need humans to live !
Why don't all these people eat their own children if it is so natural to kill ?!

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

Cow power! Let the cows eat grass! Make good use of the cow manure to generate methane and make good use of that methane. Improving our land use practices, mostly organic farming and intensely grazing perennial pastures could capture up to one eighth of the greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuel in this country. Not enough to prevent global warming, but it would help.

Sheri P.
Sheri P.5 years ago

I agree...cows are meant to munch grass, not corn. It's ridiculous how much corn is grown so we can feed cows stuff that is worse for them...and in the end it's worse for the environment as well. The agriculture industry is so out of whack...

Elaine K.
Elaine K.5 years ago

Sires are daddys not mommys.The mother is called the dam.

Elaine K.
Elaine K.5 years ago

Has anyone ever tried to measure the amount of global warming and carbon dioxide produced by the huge wildfires that seem to happen every year? Or the reduction in oxygen production caused by the loss of plant life? More needs to be done to prevent and contain fires.

Elaine K.
Elaine K.5 years ago

Having raised,bred and even milked one cow I know that they do not need to have a calf every year. I have had cows nurse the same calf for 3 years when I stopped breeding. I have raised both dairy and beef cattle. They do like grass but they also like grain. I have one who comes up to the house for some horse pellets with vegetable oil even though she has lots of long grasses,clover,vetch,etc. The calves I bred were always raised on the cow and some people have used dairy cows to raise calves instead of milking them. One Holstein can raise 4 and possibly more calves at one time and Ayrshires probably can also. THe gas that comes out of cows is the same as what comes out of people. Methane is produced by the anerobic decomposition of organic matter including manure and is basically the same as the natural gas people use for heating and cooking. One dairy farmer had a manure pit with a gas tank so that the methane flowed into the tank and then thru pipes into his furnace,stove and water heater. Some people use coal seam gas which is the same as methane. Coal seam gas burns much cleaner than coal. Everything that burns uses oxygen and produces carbon dioxide. Those huge wildfires consume huge amounts of oxygen,produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide + huge amounts of heat and destroy huge amounts of plant life that would have taken the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and produced oxygen. The government needs to do a lot more to prevent wildfires and keep those that do start