Winter is upon us. We have had some mild and nasty weather. 

Cattle and animals burn calories to stay warm. Added protein will sometimes be burnt up as energy for staying warm and not to build muscle. This will depend on the temperature, wind and wetness of the environment. 

And this time of the year, we are all feeding hay. Hopefully, we know what type and quality of hay we are feeding. 

When it is mild and if our cattle have the right body condition score, we can feed the poorer quality hay. 

Those that are too skinny or a lower body condition score will need the better-quality hay. I have gone through these recommendations in previous articles, but it never hurts to have a refresher.

To explain why cattle do not need a lot of protein, they make their own in the rumen with the bacteria and yeasts naturally there. We call these microbes to shorten the description. 

Now to also explain the rumen and regular function. 

To simplify a couple years of biochemistry and microbiology, let us think of the rumen as a vat of fine wine brewing. 

If you screw up a small step in the process with wine, you will normally get vinegar. The same holds true with the rumen. When you do everything exactly right with the wine, you get fine wine and something great to drink. When you do everything right with the rumen, you get white gold out of the udder and pounds on the hoof. This becomes very evident when you feed the rumen too, much starch. Then we can get amenities, liver abscessation, kidney problems, and/or a systemic infection, possibly from the ulcers.

Now to explain this acid-base balance, we have starch digesters and forage digesters. The starch digesters like a pH of 3.5 or lower. The forage digesters like a pH of 8 or so. Huge difference between the 2. When we are feeding mostly hay, the rumen should be at a pH of around 7 to 8. 

When we feed grain, the rumen pH should be around 5 to 6. Now we need to balance these out. Most beef cows should be around a rumen pH of 7 or above, while most dairy cows should be around a pH of 6.2 to 6.6. This is because of the amounts of grain-fed. We must feed more grain to dairy cows to get them to produce more milk.

But there is a rule of thumb that ALL cattle must have 6 pounds of long-stem hay per head per day. I normally error on the conservative side and say 8 pounds. This contributes to the scratch factor in the rumen and good rumen health.

Also, when you are changing the diet of cattle, it should be done slowly so these different digesters can get kicked into gear. Without them, we have no digestion in the rumen.

Dr. Tim E. O’Neill, DVM, owns Country Veterinary Service in Farmington, Ark. To contact Tim go to and click on ‘Contact Us.’


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