Saturday, May 16, 2009

Do As The Rumen Do (When In Rume)

As painful as the rueful admission to myself that my Dad sometimes has a point when it comes to "the law of the conservation of protein" (see entry at left, if you would like to not be lost for the next twenty paragraphs.  It doesn't hurt, that's why I moved the index up here, right next to the entries that, however random their subjects usually are, sometimes are best read in some kind of rational, ordered manner.  This is such a circumstance, so put your pointer on the entry on the left labeled "The Law of...." and show a little true grit...) 

Again... As painful as admitting that Dad was right about Tempeh being little helped in the protein department by my favorite kingdom of organisms, fungus, there was a lot that didn't sit right for me in this story.  An awful lot of stuff seems to come off natures assembly line without recognizably similar inputs to account for it's creation.  We've discussed Tempeh (at least those of us who took the time to heed my warning above), so we will leave that poor horse for the time being, but what about butter.  What is it, exactly, that helps explain the grass to butter phenomenon of the cow (or the grass to bones, or the grass to meat, or the grass to moo, for that matter...) in this "law of the conservation of protein" whirlpool that I was tricked into by my old man.  This is what had me stopping into the Biology library for "just a little minute or so," a few weeks ago.  I just had to find out if grass could be turned to gold, by that farmyard animal, with the Midas touch.

We already know about fat. At least people related to Brenda Wilondek Coffey do.  When I was a kid our family decided to be a bit more healthy, for lots of reasons.  So my mother, typical of her, began reading.  In no time at all, she had determined the basic facts of the rules, which when followed could help one avoid becoming sick with food, and she communicated clearly the basic problems of the American diet to her family.  This has been an astonishment to me for my entire life.  Why?  Well... Billions of dollars are spent in America every year looking for a Chalice that does not exist in my life due to my Mom.  She simply told me how being unhealthy in diet happens to a person, and the very rational manner by which a person avoids the worst ravages of our cultures dietary sentence of death.  There are a lot of things about life that my friends and I share a grotesque ignorance about.  When it comes to diet, in many ways, my mother taught me more than most of my adult friends know, when I was about eight years old.  I even read some of her books.  It's unbelievable. 

So even back then (this is one or two years before Oprah's first show, the first Diet Coke, few years after E.T., tail end of The Love Boat, dead center of the  Apple II series computers... welcome to my childhood.) Mom showed me, or showed me something to show me the rules about the Fats of the world.   

Mom told me about saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.  Mostly just, which were to be encouraged, which to be avoided.  She never told me to avoid Crisco, or other transfat laden vehicles of lipid mystery.  It never occurred to me to regard Crisco as a health food, so this whole transfat drum and sturm seemed a bit odd to me when it finally blew open.  Then again my Grandmother Wilondek (Mom's Mom) made the rather hilarious point, "If Crisco's so bad, I don't get it... I've been eating it all my life and everyone I know has been as well."  What do you say?  I occasionally will come across some Crisco, and it always delivers the same unpleasant waxen texture, regardless of what it looks and feels like before you chew it.  Your tongue ends up coated like a cylinder of cheese.  Lovely.  God, how will I live without it.  Make popcorn with it some time.  You will not be pleased. 

So, making up all of these fats are saturated or unsaturated fatty acids, of differing lengths, which one could talk about all day were they so inclined.  But, what the information my Mom taught me does for my diet it unfortunately could not do for my shivering frustration with this question of Butter and Grass.  How do you turn Grass into Butter.  Isn't that what our society is trying to do in any case?  I mean, if we could build a machine to turn grass to butter (thats input of energy in the process wasn't greater than the resulting product, duh!  People tell me all the time about the amazing process they heard about where you could turn anything into fuel through.... you name the "brand" that the recent snake oil salesman of science ignorance has come up with.  Yeah! You can heat any organic up and turn it into useful stuff.  But don't you think you want the cost of a production scheme to be lower than the value of it's products?  Just a thought.  Unless you want to pay the bills.)  We would be running the country on Butter then, right?  You can basically run the country on Butter. We used to run it on Spermicetti ( Sperm Whale oil) Let's give butter (grassy cow oil) a try.

Truth is, we aren't able to do what we basically understand the ruminant (animal the eats biomass and through one of about three different related schemes turns that biomass to nutrition.) can do.  By "understand" I mean understand.  We have the theory, how the food goes in, then goes through many different processes, and finally turns the grass to meat, bone, and moo.  But we don't have gigantic Archer Daniels Midland plants doing the same.  The closest thing to a "biomass to fuel" arrangement that the biggest minds at MIT and other luminary technologists in our country (and the world) have is the new process that was developed to turn sugar into petroleum products like gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, and industrial waxes and resins.  A very cool trick.  Sustainable, and local, and supportable by feedstocks of amber waving grain?  No, no, and no.  This presents a problem for folks who are looking to scientists to solve more than geopolitical and security problems through the magic of biochemistry.  So why aren't we just copying the cow?  Truth is, I am not sure.  But part of the reason is surely the density of energy problem.  The mass that digestion removes from grass in a cow in a translation of it's cellulose to sugars, is rather low, as anyone in a pasture will discover by not lifting their feet.  What is left over is considerable, and presents a handling and disposal debit to the net efficiency of the entire scheme.  

So what does the cow do to make butter then?  Surely merely turning polysaccharides (cellulose, among others) to monosaccharides (sugar) does not provide the chemical framework by which to build and run something that moos.  The health food store people would get there eyes all wide here and try to convince you that the secret is the deep green bioreactent agents of blah blah blah coupled with the antioxidants and biophenols, all of them somehow delivering the God like trick of corporeal deliverance of a mammal.  The less echo's of such commercialized nonsense pretending to stand apart as an alternative choice to "conventional sentiments" the better.  Hell must have a lot of room.

Proteins are amino acids, requiring nitrogen among other things to be constructed.  Where's that gonna come from in grass?  There's a little in there:  Dandelion Greens for example have one gram of protein out of 55 grams.  But, oh yeah, that's a measurement made for humans.  Let's turn to Oregon State University (my Dad and I were talking about Oregon agriculture today, so in deference to that, and the modern flattening of the importance of geography to the relevance of data....) 

Grass contains 2.5-3.0 percent Nitrogen.  

Protein averages 15 - 18% Nitrogen (%N X 6.25 = % crude protein)

This means grass contains roughly (depending on variety, ect.) 16% crude protein.

Most farmers would like (actually, in Indiana, love) to get 5 tons, 10,000 pounds of "dry matter" hay or silage per acre. 

How much protein, in 5 tons (per acre) silage, or hay?

1600 pounds of protein for 10,000 pounds of grass.

This is equivalent to 3700 pounds of soybeans.  A food most people believe in as a protein equivalent (and at around half protein, by weight, they are somewhat correct.)

But protein is just one of the products you find in a good pasture.  The energy in the form of fiber and carbohydrates is equally important.  Assuming that the dry matter in five tons of pasturage is sixty percent digestible; we would have six thousand pounds of digestible dry matter.  That is a sizeable amount of energy.  Assuming that feed grains are eighty percent digestible, the energy in the pasture equates to 7500 pounds of grain (130 bushels of corn.)  

Aside from the policy issues that that the above figures bring to mind, in terms of land use and productivity, it is simply surprising to see a comparison of grass to grain, and corn.  Grass is more "productive" than people sometimes realize.  Even with those four footed, somewhat heavy animals walking around, hinting at the nutrition beneath their feet.

So what?  Well I think this little exercise has helped us to discover where the cow might find it's muscles.  Grass, and other green leafy vegetables play a small role in the human food lust imagination because we cannot digest them in their entirety (though we can digest a very small percentage, couple percentage points, of cellulose, which I did not know until I stepped into the Biology Library down the street.  This is comforting given all that celery I have eaten over the years.  I thought it was all for naught...)  However, grass and green leafy vegetables, by the acre, represent a food value to an herbivore and ruminant that is gigantic (probably a good idea when it's all they eat!)  Even just looking at protein, there is more in there than I realized.  15-18 percent.  And there is a ton of sugar... sixty percent of grass by weight might be turned at least mostly to sugars by the end of the cows digestive tract. 

So in my old fashioned formulation of knowledge I have two legs of the stool taken care of.  I know where the cow gets its muscles:  15 to 18 percent of its food.  I know where the cow gets its pep: mothers little friend literally beneath it's feet: in the cellulose (basically complex sugar) that the cow is built so well to digest.

So carbs and protein are on the plate.  But what about butter?  The people love their milkfat and butter.  What's cheese without butter?  And what's steak without it's marbling?  Come on... where's the butter in grass?

The answer is obvious, if you hadn't been brought up so tactfully.  I mean, something is happening in the cow, that isn't just a bunch of knives cutting up the protein and separating it out, and enzymatically cutting down the cellulose to sugar.  The gastrointestinal phenomena within a ruminant is more mechanical than a human being, but shares with the human the considerable help of a gigantic population of non cow entities.  This is why a huge amount of methane is produced by cows.  The cow isn't making it.  Anaerobes are.  Anaerobic bacteria.  Bacteria that live without oxygen; in fact, most of them die in it's presence.  

Ruminant Digestive Processes

Ruminant's stomachs are composed of :





The Rumen is where the magic happens.  It is at the left side of the abdomen of the animal.  It is lined with Papillae, which will be important shortly.  Mostly it is just good to know that by way of comparison, Papillae are the things that line our small intestine, and absorb the nutrients that get absorbed from what we eat.  

The Rumen is a fermentation vat for primarily anaerobic bacteria.  Some aerobic, but far and away mostly anaerobic.  The Rumen is a dynamic organ that changes in composition based on diet, and is not functional at the birth of the animal.  

Rumen breaks down fibrous feed into Acetic Acid, Butyric Acid, and Propionic Acid.

The Rumen does this with Cellulolytic microbes (microbes that, not surprisingly, break down cellulose.)

It also utilizes various other microorganisms to assist in turning cellulose and starch to glucose.  Once bacterial enzymatic action has converted the polysaccharides to glucose, the glucose goes down what is called the E-M Pathway, which for all practical purposes makes the cow belch, and fart as much as it famously does.  This is all in the name of the production of three types of volatile fatty acids:  Pyruvic acid first.  Pyruvic acid is generated directly from Glucose, and is subsequently the feedstock for two of the other three volatile fatty acids important to the cow and Rumen function: Propionic acid, Acetic acid, and Butyric Acid. 

Of these three, Acetic acid is the most flexible and important due to the fact that it can further be turned to Butyric acid.  Also they are the most important components of the VFA's in the production of the substance that we are trying to arrive at here:  Butterfat, or in the typical parlance of Hicks like me: butter.  

There is all kinds of interesting stuff I could tell you here that  I have learned about how this entire process works in healthy cows and is completely screwed up, even though it is essential to the health of the cow, when you feed the cow grain instead of cellulosic feedstuffs: grain instead of grass is bad for the Rumen and terrible for the cow.  

So, that's my not terribly thoroughly detailed explanation of how grass gets to butter in a cow.  After the rumen allows the cow to ferment the grass into the Volatile Fatty Acids, listed above, those fatty acids are absorbed by the cow, and utilized as it's main energy source (through the same pathways that cream, butter and beef fat in a steak, or in your old fashioned french fries, would be used for energy by you.)  I love that.  The left over VFA's become adipose tissue on the cow (love handles) or more likely, go into it's milk production, in tiny little droplets that float to the top as cream in unhomogenized milk.  Separate the cream, shake or otherwise agitate that cream and voila, the grasses cartenoid (yellowish pigments in grass pretty much the same as the pigments in fall leaves that might make them yellow) pigments show up in globules of fat that the world over covets as butter.

So to quickly review:

Grass grows beneath the sun, taking carbon dioxide and water to make polysaccharides (through photosynthesis) that constitute the vast majority of its structure.  These polysaccharides are shorn from the ground by the specialized teeth of ruminants, like cows.  The grass is chewed and taken into the Rumen of the ruminant.  There, within the Rumen, the grass undergoes fermentation by anaerobic bacteria that disassemble the grasses polysaccharides, turning them to sucrose.  This moment, grass to sucrose, is probably the magic moment which we haven't been able to replicate efficiently.  But to continue, the sucrose is taken down various microbial pathways and turned into Propionic, Acetic and Butyric Acids, Volatile Fatty Acids, which are then taken up by the cows rumen's papillae.  At this point what happens to them is irrelevant, for, they are in the realm of all vertebrates;  part of a pathology hardly specific to a ruminant.  Too bad, they're creative guys aren't they.

So, say a prayer to the Rumen.  Trust me, in many ways, even a short review of the literature devoted to what makes you and me different from people starving on TV will have a goodly number of volumes showing how a person devoted to ANYTHING other than merely feeding himself is a person dependent on the Rumen (and anaerobes) of a Ruminant.  No matter how much I finally learn by the end of my life, it will never be enough.  In an endless virtual cycle, the ruminant made what I am doing possible.  And who knows, perhaps my friends and I will do our part to see to it that one day the ruminant is respected in it's preference for that magnificent thing, which I will indicate only in Pete Seeger's incantation:

"God Bless The Grass."


Anders Enochsson said...

Yes, the ancient problem of turning stone into gold. I think the problem lies in the horrible fact that there are no short cuts. Humans always use tons of energy trying find short cuts to everything I think. I do, at least. I have used up so much energy myself (teasingly much) trying to devise some. A - B; how in the heck are we going to get there without having to climb the mountain in the way?

There are not (and I believe, never will be) functioning weight reducing pills which transform the fat person to a slim one in a easy way. Entropy. Nature has long ago devised ways for life press forward with a minimum of entropy, and she is hell no letting anyone go anywhere without using this "route of minimal entropy". I may be absolutely wrong. Let's hope someone finds a way to converse garbage into fuel. Until then, I'm taking by bicycle.

Andy Coffey said...

I know what you mean. On the one hand, my mind wants to almost celebrate the fact of "no shortcuts." But my body... oh yeah, my body craves things, ease, and shortcuts. My unthinking moments, are not my proudest. But are they my most pleasurable? Sometimes, but not always.

Some folks say what kills you is having to get out of bed everyday.

I think your right about the pills. Even surgery that reduces the size of your stomach has huge implications to your metabolism, in a bad way. Your become acidic... you get sick. So you can get skinny.

Natures route of minimal entropy seems quite astonishing to me. That it is so consistently a sign of life, and yet so contrary to business as usual in the universe... so strange.

Garbage can be burned for fuel. It can be eaten by microbes for methane. It can be composted to increase the fertility of soil, and therefore decrease the expenditure of petroleum derived fertilizers, and increase yield (energetically a net gain.) Garbage, best of all, can be dumped in the middle of the town square to show us who we really are. I think that would fuel a fire of sorts.
I'm taking my bike too. Sometimes.