cows eating

Cow Digestion

I am sure that we have all heard that cows have four stomachs, this is not strictly true. Below you will find out how the cow deals with the tough food it needs to survive and thrive.

Cows are ruminants 

Cows are herbivorous grazing or browsing Artiodactyls, sounds like a type of dinosaur doesn’t it, belonging to the suborder Ruminantia.

There are roughly 200 species of ruminants including both domestic and wild species. Cattle, sheep, goats, deer, bovines, gazelles, antelopes and giraffes are all ruminants.

The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again”.

cow stomach

One stomach four compartments

The cows digestive system is well-adapted to efficiently break down fibrous plant material and extract nutrients from it. Cows have a specialised stomach with four compartments: the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. Here’s how their digestive process works:

Cows acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it, through microbial actions, in a specialised stomach before digestion. The process, which takes place in the front part of the digestive system and therefore is called foregut fermentation, requires the fermented food, called cud, to be regurgitated and chewed again. The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination. 


The rumen is the largest compartment and serves as a fermentation chamber. It contains billions of microorganisms, including bacteria, protozoa, and fungi, which break down cellulose and other complex carbohydrates in plant material. This fermentation process produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs) and gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide. The rumen’s environment is highly anaerobic, allowing these microorganisms to thrive.


cows eating

The reticulum is adjacent to the rumen and acts as a holding chamber for food particles. Its honeycomb-like structure helps trap large particles of feed, which are then regurgitated back into the mouth as cud during rumination.


The omasum is sometimes referred to as the “manyplies” due to its numerous folds. Its primary function is to absorb water and nutrients from the partially digested food particles before they move on to the abomasum. The omasum helps regulate the flow of digesta and reduce particle size.


The abomasum is similar to the stomach of monogastric animals, such as humans. It secretes hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes that continue the breakdown of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into smaller molecules that can be absorbed in the small intestine.

The rest of the journey

Small Intestine

After passing through the stomach compartments, the partially digested food moves into the small intestine, where further digestion and absorption of nutrients occur. Enzymes produced by the pancreas and bile from the liver aid in the breakdown of nutrients, which are then absorbed through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream.

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Large Intestine

The remaining indigestible material, along with water and electrolytes, moves into the large intestine, where water absorption takes place. Bacteria in the large intestine also ferment any remaining carbohydrates and produce additional VFAs. The indigestible material, along with bacteria and waste products, is formed into feces and expelled from the body through the rectum and anus.

This complex digestive process allows cows to efficiently extract nutrients from fibrous plant material, such as grasses and hay, which are the primary components of their diet. The process of rumination, where cows regurgitate and re-chew their food, further aids in breaking down tough plant fibers and maximizing nutrient absorption.

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