The food they eat seem extremely low on protein. Do they need less protein per mass unit than carnivores? Most of them grow quite a lot in the first year, is most of that from the mothers milk?

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    $\begingroup$ Most amino acids can be synthesized de novo. The 'essential' amino acids in humans are mostly derived from meat. Those have to be obtained from the diet. I wouldn't be surprised when most herbivores would be able to synthesize all of their amino acids de novo $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ @AliceD I don't know of any animal that can synthesize all their amino acids. The good thing is that plants can make all of them, and herbivores eat the plants, and the carnivores eat the herbivores. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 0:40

3 Answers 3


It boils down to the anatomy.

Herbivores are very good at digesting plant matter, which us monogastrics are not particularly good at. Many herbivores (such as ruminants) have large, highly developed gastrointestinal tracts containing symbiotic bacteria to allow them to digest plant matter. Once the cellulose in the plant cell walls is digested, the animal can then access the nutrients contained in the plant matter to a degree we cannot. Ruminants (such as cows) are even better able to absorb nutrients in this way than monograstric herbivores (such as horses). Rumen microbes are also an important source in ruminants for production of amino acids.

There's also a reason why the GI tract of these herbivores is so big. In the cow, it's an enormous rumen. In the horse, it's a massive colon for hindgut fermentation. To get all the nutrients they need - such as amino acids - these herbivores have to consume and ferment vast quantities of plant matter. A carnivore can generally get all the nutrients it needs in a much smaller meat meal, meaning it does not need such an extensive GI tract.

Different species, of course, have different metabolic demands and corresponding nutritional needs. Cows and other herbivores cannot synthesize all the amino acids they need, meaning they have to be consumed through the diet. Though it is somewhat dated, an interesting discussion on this subject is Protein and Amino Acid Requirements of Mammals (PDF) by Anthony Albanese (1950). The author goes through in great details the different protein requirements for various species, but I will bring your attention to one interesting table on p 116 as it is pertinent to your last question:

enter image description here

As you can see, the protein content of milk seems to correspond with the time to double birth weight. Cats with a high protein milk grow very quickly, while cows, horses, and humans grow comparitively more slowly (and thus have lower protein milk).

All animals have to get protein or amino acids through the diet, but they just have different methods to satisfy their metabolic requirements. For carnivores, they consume small protein-packed meals. For large herbivores, they have to consume and digest large quantities of plant matter to meet their needs.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice, answer, though I wonder how much that table was an example of correlation not being equal to causation. Cat and Dog newborns are very small due to multiple litter mates, and doubling their weight, is less in absolute terms than larger animals. As for humans I wonder how much of the energy load goes to providing energy to brain formation and is less available to adding to muscle, bone, and fat stores. $\endgroup$
    – AMR
    Commented Nov 10, 2015 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if you could add the grass-digesting microbe to the human gut and get the same effect? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 2:12

The protein RDA of another mammal, the human, is 70g every day, that's about 700g of hay if he can get 100% of the protein from it, that's 4 kilos of grass. So a 700 kilo cow would need about 40 kilos every day, and actually 700kg cows consume about 70kg of pasture every day.

Probably energy is the most common deficit, and not protein. Average pasture contains between 11% and 28% protein: You can read the paragraph on protein: https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/animals/dairy/Whats_in_Grass_Todays_Farm_May2014.pdf

The rumen contains many organisms, funghi and yeasts, which can also synthesize their own protein. At about 10^10-10^11 cells per milliliter, ciliate protozoa at about 10^4-10^6 per milliliter, anaerobic fungi at about 10^3-10^5 spores per milliliter and bacteriophages at about 10^8-10^9 per milliliter. It should be noted that many microbes cannot be cultured in labs, so the numbers may actually be higher in reality. https://microbewiki.kenyon.edu/index.php/Bovine_Rumen#Who_lives_there_.28Microbes_in_Rumen.29.3F

One E. coli cell has a mass of 0.95×10−15 kg, so a gram of rumen can contain 0,00001 kg of animal life, 0,01g 1%? so a 180 liter rumen can contain about 1.8 kilos of bacteria, funghi and yeast. That's a lot, especially if it can double every hour at 37'C.


To paraphrase:

Cattle don't receive their nutrients from what they consume (which, as noted, does not contain much nutrients), but rather from the various bacteria in their guts, which convert the vegetable matter into the numerous amino acids the cattle need.

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    – tyersome
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 15:29

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