Amazing cows hold promise in pioneering sustainable food systems

Farmers across all facets of animal agriculture—beef, dairy, poultry, and pork—have long embraced evolving techniques to produce meat, milk, and eggs as efficiently and sustainably as possible, minimizing agriculture’s climate-contributing footprint in the process. 

closeup of black and white spotted cow

Even still, agriculture critics routinely point fingers at the industry and the animals that it is comprised of, even going as far as calling out cows for the implications of their bovine burps.

But researchers at Penn Vet are discovering that these cow “culprits” and other livestock found in animal agriculture are actually critical partners in developing sustainable, regenerative agro-food systems.

“Animals are natural bioprocessors,” says Zhengxia Dou, professor of agricultural systems, noting that livestock’s unique and “indispensable” natural biological processes enable them to consume plant and food residues that are either indigestible by humans, unpalatable to people, or are no longer sellable for any of a number of reasons. Dou refers to these residues as IUUB (indigestible, unpalatable, or unsellable biomass); for example, the surge of processing byproducts generated by the increased popularity of plant-based foods in consumers’ diets.

“By maximizing the use of IUUB, the livestock sector of agriculture actually contributes to this societal issue in a very positive way,” says Dou.

The animals consuming IUUB are a key component to the wholesomeness of our food system, as well as to our own diets. “Without them, we would not be able to convert otherwise wasted biomass into nutritious meat, milk, and eggs.” she emphasizes.

Right now, Dou’s team at Penn Vet is in the process of conducting a dairy focused project called “The Amazing Cow.” Funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the study documents the types, amounts, and variations of IUUB fed on dairy farms, characterizing important nutritional attributes and giving producers informed insights on how IUUB feedstuffs could be implemented on their farms.

Read more at Penn Vet News.