Why a strong digestive system is important

Producers continually search for ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs on their operations. Though it may not be the first area for improvement to come to mind, ensuring cattle have an excellent digestive system paves the way for better overall herd health.

Digestive System Basics

In cattle, their digestive system includes their mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, cecum, and large intestine. According to livestock specialists and researchers, the stomach is the most important component of the digestive system.

The stomach has four distinct compartments including the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. The rumen, which is the largest compartment of the stomach, can hold as much as 40 gallons in a mature cow.

Cattle rely on rumen fermentation for the digestion of cellulosic plant materials. “A healthy digestive system in cattle is critical for efficient feed digestion and utilization, which provides cattle with sufficient nutrients for better growth performance,” Jiangchao Zhao, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Arkansas, said. 

Furthermore, Zhao stated greater feed efficiency can also reduce feed costs and greenhouse gas emissions. A healthy digestive system provides other benefits as well. In cattle, a healthy digestive system can prevent the onset of some digestive disorders such as bloat, ruminal acidosis and diarrhea. 

Connection to Immune Health

A healthy digestive system and a good immune system are interconnected and dependent on each other. The digestive system in cattle is a complex system that plays host to trillions of microbes including bacteria, fungi, methanogenic archaea, protozoa and viruses. The collection of all these microbes is called the microbiome.

The microbiome, especially the rumen microbiome, plays a significant role in feed fermentation and digestion. “Rumen microbiome includes microbes that can effectively degrade host-indigestible plant fiber and produce volatile fatty acids (VFAs) such as acetate, propionate and butyrate, which are absorbed and used as energy by cattle,” Zhao explained. “In fact, these VFAs generated by rumen microbes can meet 70 percent of the energy need of cattle, which underlines the importance of the rumen microbiome in cattle production.” 

Improving Digestive Health

First, efficient feed digestion requires a healthy digestive system and the overall well-being of cattle. “To improve feed digestion the producers should also provide cattle with a well-balanced ration with consistent dietary nutrients,” Zhao stated. “Since rumen microbes are the major players in breaking down the plant cell wall components, a healthy and diverse rumen microbiome is needed to improve digestion in cattle.”

Prebiotics and probiotics can improve feed digestion in cattle when they are administered in adequate amounts. Prebiotics and probiotics can modulate the composition, balance and activities of the rumen microbiome, therefore creating an environment conducive for better feed digestion. 

Other Factors in Digestive Health

There are other factors that can impact gut and cattle health. Livestock specialists recommend producers take steps to reduce the amount of stress animals experience during difficult circumstances such as weaning, transportation and heat. Stressful situations can impact an animal’s immune health. “Better practices to avoid these stresses are desired to promote cattle health and production,”  Zhao said. 


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