In ruminant herbivores like cows, sheep and antelopes the stomach is highly modified to act as a “fermentation vat”. It is divided into four parts. The largest part is called the rumen. In the cow it occupies the entire left half of the abdominal cavity and can hold up to 270 litres. The reticulum is much smaller and has a honeycomb of raised folds on its inner surface. In the camel the reticulum is further modified to store water. The next part is called the omasum with a folded inner surface. Camels have no omasum. The final compartment is called the abomasum. This is the ‘true’ stomach where muscular walls churn the food and gastric juice is secreted (see diagram 11.11).
Diagram 11.11 - The rumen
Ruminants swallow the grass they graze almost without chewing and it passes down the oesophagus to the rumen and reticulum. Here liquid is added and the muscular walls churn the food. These chambers provide the main fermentation vat of the ruminant stomach. Here bacteria and single-celled animals start to act on the cellulose plant cell walls. These organisms break down the cellulose to smaller molecules that are absorbed to provide the cow or sheep with energy. In the process, the gases methane and carbon dioxide are produced. These cause the “burps” you may hear cows and sheep making.
Not only do the micro-organisms break down the cellulose but they also produce the vitamins E, B and K for use by the animal. Their digested bodies provide the ruminant with the majority of its protein requirements.
In the wild grazing is a dangerous activity as it exposes the herbivore to predators. They crop the grass as quickly as possible and then when the animal is in a safer place the food in the rumen can be regurgitated to be chewed at the animal’s leisure. This is ‘chewing the cud’ or rumination. The finely ground food may be returned to the rumen for further work by the microorganisms or, if the particles are small enough, it will pass down a special groove in the wall of the oesophagus straight into the omasum. Here the contents are kneaded and water is absorbed before they pass to the abomasum. The abomasum acts as a “proper” stomach and gastric juice is secreted to digest the protein.