Can Cows Eat Meat? What Happens If They Do?

Cows generally spend a lot of time eating grasses and plant matter, but what else can they eat? 

Perhaps one of the most fascinating yet taboo questions most hobby farmers have had at some point is: are cows able to eat meat? 

What happens if they eat meat, anyway, and more importantly, what do you do if one of your cows eats a bit of meat on accident?

While technically able to eat very small amounts of meat, cows cannot derive any real nutrition from it. Cows are a specific type of herbivore known as a ruminant. Ruminants have unique digestive tracts, teeth, and saliva to break down and derive nutrients from plant matter.  

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you offered your cows a bite of a cheeseburger, keep reading! 

Below, we’ll look at all the reasons cows’ bodies simply aren’t meant to process things like animal matter.

We’ll also go over what foods cows should eat instead and why certain foods are more nutritious for them than others. 

can cows eat meat

Are Cows Able to Eat and Digest Meat? 

Interestingly, if a cow were to eat a small amount of meat, it wouldn’t cause any significant harm immediately.

However, while curiously nibbling a discarded burger or piece of bacon won’t cause them to immediately keel over, it’s still a bad idea to offer cows meat (if they’re even willing to eat it in the first place) for several reasons.

While meat, for us, is a good source of protein, cows don’t need this at all. 

Cows can eat and pass small amounts of meat through their digestive tracts with few issues other than an upset stomach…at first. 

Just because they can eat and pass it doesn’t mean they’re getting any nutrition or value out of the food.

This is because cows are a particular type of herbivore known as a ruminant. 

They’re known for their uniquely four-chambered stomach, the first portion of which is called the rumen. 

The rumen significantly affects digestion for cows and other ruminant animals like goats and sheep. 

More specifically, they’re classified as the “grass and roughage eating” type of ruminant. 

Their bodies are best suited for eating large amounts of high-fiber plant matter like dried grasses and pasture grasses. 

Further Reading: Why do cows eat so much grass?

Notably, cows have much larger rumens than other ruminants, so they’re able to store and break down a LOT of grass in their bellies at a time. 

Additionally, while carnivorous animals have very short digestive tracts, herbivorous animals like cows have long, slow, winding digestive tracts, which are better able to break down tough plant material by “fermenting” it and re-digesting it to get every last bit of nutrition. 

Simply put, cows can eat a bit of meat without experiencing much more than possibly an upset stomach. 

However, it will not benefit them at all since their bodies are much more efficient at digesting plants. 

If they eat a lot of meat over time, cows inevitably develop nutritional deficiencies, which leave them prone to stunted growth and various other health issues. 

What Happens If A Cow Eats Meat?

Nothing serious is likely to happen if one of your cows sticks their head through the fence and snags a bite of your turkey sandwich out of curiosity. 

If anything, they’re likely to briefly taste it only to spit it out moments later. 

In most cases, cows are unlikely to show any interest in meat products. 

Meat is unfamiliar to them and not part of their natural diet. 

Plus, since their bodies have spent thousands of years evolving to better and more efficiently digest plant material, even the most mischievous, curious calves are unlikely to bother with even sampling meat if given the opportunity. 

At most, if one or more of your cows eats a small amount of meat one time, they’re likely to experience mild gastrointestinal upset and little else. 

They’re also unlikely to attempt eating any meat products again, as meat isn’t particularly appetizing to them, to begin with, and the upset stomach will likely further convince them to stay away from any form of meat in the future. 

The problem with cows eating meat mainly arises when it becomes a habit. 

Since their bodies aren’t meant to derive nutrition from meat, eating lots of it offers no real health benefits. 

This results in weight loss and various nutrient deficiencies, leading to malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy cows. 

What Are Cows Supposed to Eat?

So, if animal meat is off-limits, what types of plants should cows eat as part of a balanced diet? 

Are all grasses the same? 

Do they only eat grass? 

What about fruits and veggies or even dark, leafy greens? 

As grass and roughage-eating ruminants, the vast majority of a cow’s diet should be made up of two main types of grasses: dried grasses like hay and alfalfa and pasture/lawn grasses like ryegrass, fescue, and bluegrass. 

Again, technically, cows can digest and even derive nutrients from various plant matter. 

However, their digestive tracts, teeth, and saliva are perfect for breaking down tough, high-fiber plant matter like grasses. 

Cattle can absorb vitamins and nutrients from these grasses, which other animals’ bodies simply pass on in their waste, so grass should ideally be their leading staple food.

Regarding exact numbers, about 80% to 90% of a typical cow’s diet should be made up of dried, pasture grasses or commercial animal feed made up primarily of these grasses.  

Aside from this, there are plenty of other plants cows can eat, and they especially enjoy fruits and veggies as snacks to supplement their diet! 

Even cows like a bit of variety from time to time, provided they’re getting the majority of their nutrition from grasses. 

Some of the best fruits for cows to snack on include: 

  • Apples
  • Blueberries 
  • Blackberries
  • Raspberries
  • Oranges
  • Watermelon
  • Mango
  • Bananas

In addition, here are some great choices of leafy greens and other veggies for cows: 

  • Turnip greens
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Cabbage
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Swiss chard
  • Squash (various)
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower

Related: Are tomatoes bad or toxic for cattle?

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Growing up amidst the sprawling farms of the South, Wesley developed a profound connection with farm animals from a young age. His childhood experiences instilled in him a deep respect for sustainable and humane farming practices. Today, through, Wesley shares his rich knowledge, aiming to inspire and educate others about the joys and intricacies of rural life.

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