A few weeks ago, I was watching the local morning news and saw a feature on a Des Moines brewery that sells leftover grains from making beer as feed for cattle.

The arrangement benefited local cattle farmers as well as the Iowa brewery. It gave cattle farmers a source of lower cost yet high quality feed. And the brewery didn’t have to dump the leftover grains in a landfill.

I did a little internet sleuthing and discovered that cattle not only can eat brewers grains, but on rare occasions, cattle are also given beer. Apparently, it makes for some tasty beef (and some hopped up cows).

May is National Beef Month, and it’s a good time to reflect on all the ways that cattle farming benefits our everyday lives - in ways we might not realize, like when we take home a six-pack of craft beer.

Indeed, cattle play a vital role in a sustainable food system. Cattle can consume plant materials - such as grasses, corn stalks, ethanol byproducts and, yes, brewers grains - that are inedible to humans because of the animal’s unique ruminant digestive system.

“Cattle are upcyclers. They can take food and feed that we humans can’t or won’t eat to produce highly desired (beef) proteins,” explains Dr. Dan Loy, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University and director of the Iowa Beef Center.

Loy says cattle are raised in all 50 states, often on grazing lands that are otherwise unsuitable for growing food. One out of every three farms in the United States raises cattle, he notes.

"Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and (farmers) want to be more transparent. Farmers are always looking for ways to improve ..., keeping an eye on environmental quality in every aspect.”
Dr. Dan Loy, director of the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University.

Loy says it’s not unusual for Iowa farmers to feed leftover brewers grains to cattle. “It’s a very common feedstuff that’s been fed for decades, if not centuries. Ever since we’ve been brewing beer, they have been feeding (brewers grains) to cattle,” he explains.

Loy says he recently received several media calls when there was a story in the news about farmers feeding unwanted gummy worms to cattle.

That’s right: Cattle can eat candy, and they love it.

“It’s just like how you would give it to children - with supervision and moderation,” Loy says with a laugh.

Even vegetarians benefit from cattle. Cattle eat the inedible leftovers, including pea pods, beet roots and wheat stalks, from the production of plant-based burgers and meat substitutes.

If cattle didn’t eat these inedible leftovers, then the food waste would end up in a landfill. Unfortunately, landfills are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Loy says farmers are adopting improved tools and methods to help make farming more effective, efficient and environmentally friendly.

For example, more Iowa farmers are planting cover crops, such as oats and rye, to prevent soil loss and protect water quality. And - you guessed it - cattle can eat cover crops.

“Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and (farmers) want to be more transparent,” Loy says. “Farmers are always looking for ways to improve ..., keeping an eye on environmental quality in every aspect.”