Ask A Farmer: Does feeding corn harm cattle?

What is a Factory Farm? Does feeding cattle corn harm them? Why are cattle finished in feedlots? These are a few of the questions I often receive when discussing the beef we eat and how cattle are raised. During the next few posts we will address a few of these concerns.

Do cattle eat grass or grain?

cattle grazing pasture bermuda grass
Cows grazing high-quality pasture is a common practice on cow-calf farms

Most all beef cattle are born and raised on pastures where their diet consists primarily of grasses, legumes, and other forages. These feeds are high in fiber and lower in digestibility of nutrients. The stomach of cattle is made of different compartments and is able to digest these fibrous materials. When cattle on pasture need more energy than can be obtained from forages, the farmers may feed them supplemental feeds that come from a number or sources, including concentrates that will be explained below.

Do farmers feed cattle corn?

After cattle are weaned (approximately 7-8 months of age, shortly before puberty), most continue to receive forages as a large portion of their diet. This is important to help their stomach continue to grow and develop properly. However, forages do not provide the high amount of digestible energy these cattle need to grow quickly. Farmers are able to utilize a number of feeds that are higher in digestible energy and lower in fiber – we refer to these as concentrates.

cattle feed bunk corn grains
Cattle feed bunks at the Winrock Stocker pens

The concentrates feeds can include cereal grains (corn, wheat, oats, barley, sorghum), the by-products of milling or processing these grains (soybean meal, cottonseed meal. peanut meal), or by-products of ethanol or alcohol production (distillers grains). These feeds are more efficient sources of energy for the stomach in cattle, in turn making the animal more efficient in obtaining energy for growth, reproduction, or weight gain.

Can eating grass make cattle sick?

cattle eating corn grazing field pasture
Mike Haley’s cows are choosing to eat corn on the edge of the field

Grazing cattle on forages in the pastures isn’t a cure-all, fix-all when it comes to cattle health. My friend Jesse Bussard just finished her studies at the University of Kentucky studying fescue grazing in cattle. She has written on many topics where forages can threaten cattle health. Some plants are poisonous to cattle, others contain toxic endophytes or chemicals called gossypol that can be detrimental to cattle health. There are concerns for mineral imbalance that causes grass tetany or even bloat when forages are lush and green. Grazing pastures are more dependent on rainfall in periods of drought (compared to stored feeds). This year we’ve seen many instances of toxicity in plants due to nitrates that build up in the plant during drought, and surge into the plant when moisture arrives, causing toxicity problems in cattle (prussic acid), even though these are natural compounds. During any growing season we also have concerns of pests, like army worms, that can wipe out entire pastures. When these conditions occur, despite great management by farmers, it is important to have other feeds, like grains, available to feed cattle.

Does feeding corn harm or kill cattle?

growing corn cattle food silage
Corn stalks in the field

This is a claim I hear by many folks. Feeding cattle corn or other cereal grains, or their by-products does not kill the animal. Feeding these grains as 100% of the diet will give the animal an upset stomach, just like if you sat down and ate an entire box of corn flakes.

In the stomach compartment of cattle called the rumen, there are microbes that digest foods into essential nutrients that the digestive system can utilize as building blocks for body requirements. Forages and concentrates contain a source of energy in the form of two different sugars - cellulose in forages and starch in concentrates.

How do cattle digest grains like corn?

The microbes in the rumen of a cow eating only forages are adapted to digesting primarily cellulose. IF this animal were to ingest a large amount of starch containing feeds (much like you eating a large amount of candy on Halloween) it would be a shock to the system. However, the microbes in the stomach have the ability to shift and adapt to digesting starch as a portion of the diet. Given an adjustment period – switching the animal’s diet from primarily forages to concentrates – the microbe population adjusts and the animal is able to utilize that energy more efficiently on a diet that includes high-energy feeds like cereal grains.

cattle digestion forages corn
Cattle digest cellulose from forages into fatty acids for building blocks

When this switch in diet is done rapidly, the pH (acid) of the rumen is disrupted, causing a condition called acidosis. This may be what many people refer to when claiming that feeding cattle corn makes them sick. This is something that cattle farmers try to avoid, but when it does occur, acidosis can be corrected by adding more forage to the diet and paying close attention to the transition in diet. Corn does not make up 100% of the diet. The diet of cattle is usually a mixture of many feeds, mixed in the correct proportions to give the animal what it needs for its stage of growth or production.

cattle digestion grain corn
Cattle digest starches from grains into fatty acid building blocks

So to wrap it all up, yes cattle do eat corn, many other cereal grains. They love these feeds [video]. Don’t believe me? They will run you over for it. These feeds are good for them because they are a great source of digestible energy for cattle growth, reproduction, weight gain, and any other metabolic processes.

For the record, I love beef from both grass- and grain-finished cattle. Each has its unique qualities in production and taste and I am so grateful for the opportunity of choice between the two. Choose what fits best for you, but don’t hate your neighbor because he/she chooses differently. In the next blog post, I will address the topic of feeding cattle in feedlots (some refer to these as factory farms or confined animal feeding operations) using my experience working in them.

If you have more questions about what cattle eat, I encourage you to visit these blogs by farmers from across the country that I trust and look to for information, insight, and experience.

Submit your own questions via the Ask A Farmer tab on this blog!

What other questions do you have about what cows eat? Leave your comments below and I’ll include them in a later post.

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42 thoughts on “Ask A Farmer: Does feeding corn harm cattle?”

  1. Nice job Ryan, When ranchers spend six to eight months cutting and storing hay then two months feeding putting out hay day after day for hours. Everything I do is grass and hay. I’m on my way right now to check the growth of grass in the hay field. I forget we even feed corn.

    I shared my thoughts on grass finished beef with the post Grass fed beef- all hype or truly a super food ( )

  2. I was at a seminar not long ago and one of the speakers, a scientist, noted that grass eventually turns to seed (after all that is how it reproduces) and any cattle kept exclusively on grass must eventually eat that seed as the grass matures. So claiming pastured cattle do not get grain, is erroneous. His words, not mine. I like your statement to not hate your neighbor because he/she chooses differently. This is one of my soap box issues, the claim made by some producers that there is only one right way to do things. There isn’t, as you have so well stated. We are all in this together and we can support our way without putting down our neighbor who does things differently. Thanks, Ryan.

    1. There is one flaw in the statement of the scientist. Grass does eventually turn to seed. However, very few cows are on grass that is allowed to turn to seed. Forage pastures rarely are allowed to get mature enough to seed.

      1. I cannot speak from the animal nutrition side, but I can say that forages produced as hay are usually let go to seed at least partial fill. That is where much of the feed value and yield comes in. This includes oats, sudangrass, Rhodesgrass, bermudagrass and even corn to be ensiled. Most of the corn yield comes not from the stover, but from the ear.

        I note a prior comment questioning the “morality” of feeding corn to animals prior to slaughter. Maybe a better discussion for that person would be “does slaughtering cattle harm cattle”.

  3. Excellent post. I will use it as reference information.

    I wonder why nobody ever seems to mention that corn IS a grass.

    And I wonder what form of corn non-farmers think the animals are fed–shelled corn? Ear corn? The entire stalk, including the ear? It sounds as if they think animals are fed shelled corn and nothing else.

    1. Hi Diana – my cows have no problem running through the best field of grass if they saw me standing on the other side with a bucked full of corn. This is how we move them from pasture to pasture, tease them with some corn because they cant resist it!

    2. Diana, cattle won’t eat just anything and finding the right mix of feeds for palatability is a concern when mixing cattle feed. They definitely find grains and their by-products palatable, sometimes even more-so than a pasture of forages.

      1. Thanks for responding, Ryan! I think most people who are conscientious about the health of their animals – pets or livestock – want to give them the most appropriate diet, which is why I’m curious what cows would naturally gravitate toward.

  4. Reagardless, whatever they have changed about cows diet has changed the taste and smell of their meat. I definitely eat less meat because of these changes.

    1. Some of those changes may be in you. As we age our taste buds get old and die. It’s why older people salt their food to get it to taste better. I add some horseradish!

  5. Ryan, thanks for this info. It’s interesting that the corn question came up for you. I think that’s because, not necessarily all related to farming, corn is ubiquitous in American lives. Michael Pollan wrote an article about all the foods you can find corn in that I found on the link below when I was researching the uses for corn. It’s interesting, but he does critique farm usage a bit, so skip that part :). I just thought it was an amazing treatise on how much corn we humans consume in various shapes and forms:
    Thanks very much for the scientific breakdown on what you feed the cattle and why.

  6. Well written post Ryan. You did a good job of “digesting” down a complex subject and making it palatable to the technically unwashed.

    I guess the question from many of the adversaries of industrial ag is, does the high corn diet lead to or cause a higher population of E. coli? Many blame corn diets for the human sickness sometimes found by beef consumption.

    Would you please comment?



  7. I think the comparison to a high sugar, high fat diet for humans is instructive. We love it and it helps us get nice and fat. But it also kills many of us prematurely.

    “Both subacute and acute acidosis can lead to rumenitis (infection of the rumen wall). The low pH from acidosis creates lesions in the rumen wall. Damage to the rumen wall from sharp objects (such as wire or nails) predisposes the animal to abscess formation. When rumenitis develops, liver abscesses often follow. Bacteria (F. necrophorum, Actinomyces pyogenes, Bacteriodes spp.) from the rumen that cause liver abscesses enter the blood supply through ulcerative lesions, hairs, or foreign objects embedded in the rumen wall. These bacteria then travel via blood to the liver.

    Liver abscesses are most often seen in feedlot cattle. Severe liver abscesses may reduce feed intake, weight gain, feed efficiency, and carcass yield. Abscessed livers are condemned at harvest, regardless of abscess severity. Liver condemnations from abscesses were observed in 13.5 per cent of fed cattle in the 2005 National Beef Quality Audit, resulting in about a 2 per cent reduction in carcass weight per head. Abscesses were the primary cause of liver condemnations”

    This is clearly not the diet you would choose for cattle if you were trying to get them to live a healthy long life. This is a diet to fatten them up quick for slaughter and to give the meat a particular taste. Whether this is right or wrong depends on your individual morality.

    1. Thanks for the comment Dave, and I am aware of this. We need to manage our feeding strategies better to avoid acute acidosis in finishing cattle. Keep in mind, just because it happens, doesn’t mean it happens all of the time.

    2. Very nice point Dave with some good data.

      It struck me that in the section on “does eating grass make a cow sick” he went over all sorts of plant “toxins” and made grass sound really dangerous (even though that was 90% of their diet since cows evolved). And then in the next section “does feeding corn to a cow make them sick” he just says, “oh, maybe an upset stomach.” Clear bias here and a complete gloss over the real dangers to the cows and to us eating corn-fed beef for life.

      The fact is cows never ate corn (or any grain) in any substantial portion before we had so much after WWII that we began feeding it to them in droves. The fact that they “love” it, as is claimed, is because it is sweet and starchy — in evolutionary terms, it can make them fat and help them survive. Only cows don’t know that. Just because they love it doesn’t say anything about if it nourishes them or us for the long term.

      This article completely glosses over the dangers of feeding cows so much corn. It’s destroying the cow’s health (about 1 in 5 have absessed livers, as pointed out above) creating more need for antibiotics, creating more greenhouse gasses, destroying the top soil (albeit, in an indirect way) and destroying our health by disrupting the important fatty acid profiles in the meat and through residual hormones and antibiotics. My question is: what’s happening to the other four cows? Probably a lot that, because of their short lives, is not coming to fruition.

      But corn isn’t the only problem — they’re also fed soybeans, candy, chicken feces, feathers, the leftovers from the production of canola oil, and pretty much whatever other industrial by-products can legally be shoved in their mouths.

      If you care about your own health, your heart, or not getting cancer, or the health of the soil and air, you would be wise to stick with grass-fed/finished traditionally raised beef.

      1. That’s not necessarily true. Here in Kentucky, cattle have been eating corn since as early as the 1800′s. They were most often wintered on corn and then supplemented on corn along with spring gasses until the cattle drive to the markets. And we’re a forage state.

  8. I think Dave has come closer to the most important point than anyone else. However the technical issues involved and even the moral ones are moot beside the biological one. We’ve changed what we eat and how we eat more in the last century than in the last 10,00 years and it’s clearly killing us. It’s time to back up the bus while we still can and examine the food chain from start to finish.

  9. Reblogged this on Farmers 4 Choice and commented:
    Corn is grown to feed people, put fuel in your cars and make thousands of product’s both edible and non edible like plastics. Our desire for corn is not solely fast food…Cattle are able to digest corn but corn like other rich concentrates to their diet can give them an upset stomach; hence the feed silage that is made with corn and other legumes to provide a supplement to their grass feed when needed. See the link below for the true facts on Cows and Corn…Ryan has a comments section if you care to challenge your perceptions.

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