Conventional wisdom encourages marathon runners to fuel up by eating a lot of carbohydrates. Bodybuilders pump iron and eat a lot of extra protein in their diet. Even nursing mothers need a special diet and bloggers recommend everything from oatmeal and flax seed to brewer’s yeast and fenugreek to help produce and let down milk for the newborn.
The science is a bit mixed on each of these and doesn’t prove that they work the way proponents claim. It stands to reason that marathoners need a lot of energy. Carbohydrates convert to sugars in the body which can be used for quick energy in metabolism. Bodybuilders are trying to build muscle and so an increase of protein and amino acids to build that muscle should be beneficial. For nursing mothers, the oatmeal could provide some iron as they are often anemic with low iron levels in their blood. The flax seed can provide some healthy fatty acids and the brewer’s yeast can be a source of B-complex vitamins, protein, minerals, and chromium. The bottom line is that whether you are running a race, pumping iron, or nursing a baby you need to give your body what it needs for peak and optimal performance.
The same is true for livestock. Farmers are constantly looking for ways to keep their animals healthy and well cared for. The diets they select for their livestock are usually recommended by a veterinarian or animal nutritionist to provide optimal performance. Dairy cows need a diet that will help them produce a lot of milk. Pigs, turkeys, and beef cattle need a diet that will help them grow big and pack on muscle mass. Chickens need a diet that will help them lay eggs.
Dairy Cattle: To keep dairy cattle healthy and producing milk, their diet should include a lot of high-quality forages and grains. The forages (think corn stalks, grasses, alfalfa) provide fiber in the diet. This can come in the form of wet forage like silage (fermented forage) or dry forage like hay. As ruminants, a healthy gut biome is important and the cattle will regurgitate that forage, chew their cud and then swallow it and continue digestion. Bacteria in their stomachs will help break down the thick plant cell walls and extract the nutrients. Grains like corn, soy, wheat, etc. can provide quick energy and carbohydrates to fuel their body. A healthy diet will then include a balance of rations to meet other nutrient requirements (different for each stage of lactation). These nutrient requirements can include added fats, vitamins, minerals, protein supplements, and salt. It can actually be quite complicated with mathematical formulas to determine the exact amounts. The human diet is quite varied and therefore it is hard for nutritional experts to say exactly what a human should eat to stay healthy. But for cows who basically eat the exact same thing every day (grasses) experts can tweak the ration and provide exactly what they need to stay healthy and produce great quality milk (and a lot of it)!
Pigs: Pigs are more omnivorous, meaning they can have a more varied diet like humans. This means that farmers can have more flexibility, but it also means that the math can be more complicated. The goal is to get the pigs to grow quickly and put on lean muscle mass. Current consumer trends want to see lean cuts of pork and so the lean muscle mass is important. That lean muscle mass is largely determined by the pig’s diet. Pigs can be fed molasses, beets, cane, oats, grain, groat, peas, rye, milk, sorghum, soybeans, eggs, fish, flax, meat and bone meal, canola, barley, alfalfa, sunflower seeds, wheat, and whey. Their ration is often then supplemented with protein, meal, vitamins, and minerals. For muscle production, farmers are trying to ensure pigs get enough essential amino acids like isoleucine, lysine, methionine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. In Iowa, because it is readily available, the major feed components for a pig’s diet are corn and soybeans.
Beef cattle: Like dairy cattle, beef cattle need a lot of forage. But because their purpose is to produce muscle mass, like pigs, they might be supplemented with some added protein. Beef cattle will spend the majority of their life grazing grasses, as ruminants they are excellent at digesting those grasses and converting them into energy and ultimately muscle mass. While on pasture, they are provided mineral and salt lick blocks that can provide minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, and selenium. Most beef cattle are grain-finished, which means that they are transported to a feedlot where their diet is more closely regulated. Their diet still is largely forage, but farmers add in corn, soybeans, and other grains. This allows the animals to put on additional weight and even some fat which promotes marbling in the muscle which makes it taste really good when cooked. Corn and soybeans help provide the additions to their forage diet. Many cattle that are raised on pasture in the West are shipped to the Midwest to then be finished on grain. It is easier and more cost effective to ship the animals to the grain than to ship the grain to the animals.
Chickens: Chickens, like most animals, need a healthy mix of the basic nutrient requirements like carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water. Their exact nutrient requirement is tailored to their age and the stage of egg laying that they are in. Corn and soybeans can provide most of the nutritional requirements for chickens. Those base ingredients can be broken down into the specific nutrients that chickens need for optimal egg production including protein, lysine, methionine, tryptophan, and threonine. Then the diet can be supplemented with vitamins and minerals like calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and chloride. Calcium is very important for producing the shells of the eggs, so this becomes a key ingredient to add to chicken feed. Human nutritionists are also looking for ways to make eggs healthier to eat. If we supplement chicken feed with lutein that lutein will end up in the eggs. Lutein can potentially help in humans with brain development and eye sight. Other additives to chicken feed could make eggs even healthier for humans to consume.
So whether you are a farmer trying to care for your livestock, a runner, a weightlifter, or a sleepless parent trying to nurse a baby, fueling the body is an important piece of the puzzle to ensure health and optimal performance. Science is making new discoveries everyday and farmers are working hard to implement best management practices to feed and care for their livestock.