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Omnivores Versus Herbivores

By Sam Fisher

Since the “Why Grass-fed”  article in the last E-news, an acquaintance (not an E-news subscriber) made a rather snide remark that he finds it amusing how these “niche” markets (with emphasis on niche) focus on grass-fed everything, even selling poultry and hogs as grass-fed, when they are being fed grain as well. I, of course, couldn’t keep quiet and pointed out that we don’t market poultry and pork products as grass-fed, mentioning the difference between omnivores and herbivores. Because both were new terms to him, he asked me to define them, which turned into a rundown of the differing traits in herbivores versus omnivores. I had no intentions of giving a lecture, but he didn’t have a clue.

Herbivores are multi-stomached animals called ruminants (cattle, sheep, bison, antelope, etc.), that have the means to – and do in the natural world – thrive on a plant-based diet alone, given that the quality and quantity is sufficient. Omnivores are single-stomached animals like poultry, hogs, and of course… humans. Omnivores consume both grasses/greens and meat. The rumen (stomach) of the herbivore is comparable to a great fermentation vat, complete with live microbes to inoculate with friendly bacteria the mass of carbon and simple proteins found in grasses and legumes, breaking it down into complex starches, sugars, and proteins. The single-stomached animal has a much shorter digestive tract, and while it can get by on a diet made up of greens, in order to flourish it needs the more complex proteins found in meats and/or carbohydrates and sugars found in fruits, vegetables, or nuts.

From a farmscape perspective, herbivores on grass are the most sustainable, low-input animals to be had, if we allow them to be. Beef and dairy cattle will turn grasses that don’t need to be planted, sprayed, chemical fertilized, or mechanically harvested, into excellent meat and milk. If grazing management is implemented, they will produce an even higher quality food while improving grass swards, increasing palatability and consequently, animal efficiency, and meat or milk yields. One of the most environmentally friendly foods humans can consume is 100% grass-fed meat and dairy. It stimulates a return of annual cropland to perennial pasture, which reduces soil erosion, sequesters – and returns to the soil – atmospheric carbon, and reduces agricultural petroleum consumption. It promotes having cattle in their natural habitat, and it improves human health because grass-fed meat and dairy are lower in fat and higher in several essential vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats.

In the last several decades, beef has been the recipient of plenty of unfavorable press, depicted as unhealthy and environmentally harmful. Which may be true if we’re talking feedlot beef where the animals – which for several decades the beef industry have selected to be bigger (less efficiency on grass) – upon reaching six to eight months of age, are weaned and removed from the pastures they were born in. They then are transported to a feedlot consisting of acres – in some cases hundreds of acres – of dirt/mud pens, miles of roads with feed troughs alongside, feed facilities to mill and process the concoction of grains and rendered slaughterhouse byproduct, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and synthetic growth hormones into a “complete” ration.  All of this is overshadowed by a perpetual pall of dust and mountains of manure, turning the surrounding area into a feedlot toilet. In most cases, this is the beef product in the grocery store meat counter. Not only is it an ecological disaster, but if we believe the old adage, “We are what we eat,” it’s unquestionably not the healthiest food available.

But to abide by nature’s template and allow herbivores to graze perennial grasses, to mimic on a domestic scale what wild herbivore herds the world over show us, always moving and migrating to a fresh salad bar of greens, beef and dairy is a thing of ecological beauty. It’s an asset to the eco-system, a boon for the eaters of the product thereof, and a fine example of the whole cycle of life. The same could be said of omnivores like hogs and poultry, whom westernized agriculture has made into an abominable confinement production system, reducing the animals to mere proto-plasma – factory style product in and product out, and producers to feudal serfs under the conglomerates they serve, all to the detriment of both the end product and the consumer. But when turned out to pasture where production is kept in tune with the natural eco-system, with periodical moves to provide clean linens, consuming grass and insects along with grain, omnivores add a pleasant diversity to both the plant and animal species with which they co-exist. This meshes with and adds to the whole of what a natural eco-system looks like, and it portrays the beauty of both pasture-raised omnivores and grass-fed herbivores. And that’s the View from the Country.

Quotes Worth Re-Quoting:

“Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”   ~ Joel A. Barker

“We are all faced with series of great opportunities, all disguised as insoluble problems.”   ~ John W. Gardner

Sam fisher is a farmer with his wife at Freedom Acres Farm in Honey Brook, PA. He can be reached at