Ruminants are animals with multiple "stomachs". They can survive on poor quality pasture because of this and their cud chewing. Most ruminants

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Ecologically, ruminants have the most complex digestive system of any species on earth.

Several of our most important farm animals - cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo and deer - and many wild animals such as giraffes and antelopes are ruminants.

Cloven-hoofed means that the hoof is split as in cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and deer, unlike horses with a single toe (a perissodactyl ungulate).

Many ruminants graze forage (plant stems and leaves) though some consume tree branches, fruit and roots. Ruminants can thrive on forages or browse plants that they graze.

In fact the success of many ruminants is their ability to extract a good living from feed that would starve a horse or any other animal that realistically needs a richer diet. Ruminants can be fed grain, but it is not natural for cattle and sheep to live just on grain. Feeding ruminants on high-grain rations in feedlots can produce undesirable effects, particularly if they have not been accustomed to the fodder.

The term "ruminant" or "pseudo-ruminant" broadly encompasses all animals with a pre-gastric pouch with bacterial fermentation. Indeed, one species of bird from South America was recently classified as a ruminant.

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Typical ruminants have a greatly expanded pre-gastric pouch that is divided into three or four chambers where consumed feed is fermented.

Ruminants have no upper incisor teeth - these have been replaced with a hard dental pad, and some ruminants have a split upper lip allowing them to graze very close to the ground.

With ruminants, the first chamber that consumed feed enters is the reticulo-rumen or rumen. The contents of this remarkable organ will weigh about 10% of the total weight of the whole animal.

The rumen works like a fermentation vat alive with microorganisms (bacteria, protozoa, fungi) that ferment consumed feed. This liberates compounds (smelly, volatile acids like acetic acid in vinegar) that are absorbed by the ruminant and used as a source of energy.

The microorganisms (ruminal flora or microflora) make amino acids and then combine amino acids into microbial protein. Microbes flushed to the intestines serve as a source of protein for the animal.

The rumen is the organ that explains why ruminants can thrive on highly fibrous feeds (that would starve a horse or hen) and low protein feeds (because ruminants conserve nitrogen through recycling it to the rumen for microbes to re-use for making microbial protein).

Just as a fermentation vat will convert starch from grain into alcohol, microbes in the rumen ferment fiber (hemicellulose and cellulose as found in paper) to compounds that ruminants absorb and use as a source of energy.

Ruminal microbes also produce gases (carbon dioxide and methane) that are burped into the atmosphere.

The ruminal bacteria and protozoa that ferment feed components are rich in protein; when flushed with undigested feed to the abomasums (the ruminant's true or gastric stomach), these microbes also serve as a protein source for the ruminant.

Most ruminants ruminate (chew their cud) by regurgitating fibrous particles from the rumen back to the mouth for re-chewing. Rumination reduces the particle size of partly-digested food components and adds saliva (providing both liquid and buffers) to the rumen to enhance the rate and extent of microbial digestion in the rumen.

Swine are arteriodactyl ungulates but are not ruminants. Horses are perissodactyl ungulates but are not ruminants.

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This page was updated on December 27, 2007