Consumers may think that animal “happiness” is most dependent on the availability of feed and access to pasture, but true animal comfort is most dependent on management. Good management considers the amount and quality of feed, availability of water and shade, and the state of the animal’s pasture or feed lot. Both grass fed and conventional producers make these considerations. Assuming good management, the question becomes what is the best diet for livestock?

A ruminant is an animal, specifically a mammal, that has a specialized stomach, called a rumen. A rumen has four compartments to break down food through a process of fermentation and regurgitation. Because of this specialized stomach, all ruminants, including cows, sheep, goats, and deer need forage in their diet to survive. They simply cannot live on grain or corn. Even animals in a feedlot are given hay or forage to maintain a healthy acidic level in their rumen to ensure they can break down their food. Cattle are fed grain to increase the rate at which they gain weight. The quicker the cattle get to their salable weight, the more money the producer makes, because it reduces the amount and cost of feed invested in each animal. Health problems may arise in cattle when they are fed too much grain too quickly. Temple Grandin, a world renowned animal scientist specializing in animal welfare, explained grain in a cow’s feed ration as “cake and ice cream”. We know that too much dessert in our own diet is unhealthy, and the same goes for livestock. The idea that feeding grain to a ruminant, whose digestive system is fine-tuned for grass, leads to suffering, is both right and wrong.”

Although cattle may digestively tolerate and even physically thrive when fed grain in moderation, producers in Northeast Iowa, have noticed their livestock seem “happier and healthier” when finished on grass. Lowell Lyngaas from Heathered Ridge Farm began dairying in the 1980s. Every fall he let his cattle out on the pasture and cornstalks to forage for themselves, and he noticed an interesting phenomenon: fewer health problems and increased components in his milk. This realization influenced Lowell’s decision to convert his farm to a grass diet for his livestock. Caite Palmer of Prairie’s Edge Farm by Castalia, agrees that when her cattle and sheep are on pasture, they require fewer medical interventions and are better tempered animals.

Producers work with agronomists and conservationists to develop pasture mixes that contain the right balance of cool and warm season grasses and legumes in order to provide enough nutrients for their livestock to feed and fatten. Producers are thoughtful about which breeds they raise on grass and consider the efficiency of the animal, the finished product, and which genetics compliment those goals.

Northeast Iowa’s farmers and ranchers work hard to develop management systems that maximize the growth and health benefits for their animals because they understand that this translates into a more nutritional product.