What Do Cows Eat?

By Carla Wardin, Michigan Dairy Farmer

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The farmer cow relationship is symbiotic; the healthier a cow, the higher quality milk she gives. We care so much about our cows’ dietary needs that we employ a nutritionist (ours is Aaron Park, Ph.D., dairy nutrition.) He assists us in testing the cows’ feed, checking our milk components and observing the herd to make sure they have the best nutrition available.

Diet
Dairy cows live on grain and forage. They are a ruminant animal, which means they have a four-chambered stomach. One chamber—the rumen—is a large fermentation vat where bacteria and microorganisms break down food. This gives our cows the ability to get the most nutrients out of the food they eat.

Cows prefer their food chopped up and fermented. The main feed ingredients are corn and alfalfa; which supplies them with the most energy and protein. On our farm, we grow these crops for our herd. We also add supplemental feed to meet their nutritional needs. Extra additions are molasses, the sugar aids in digestion; and minerals, which is like taking a vitamin. We also use fats, like calcium salts, because healthy fat is important in their diets; and yeast, which stimulates their rumen.

Our cows graze out on pasture, so we mix all this food together in a mixer wagon. It combines feed like a big salad. We check the cows’ milk components daily, and change the ration of the feed in response. We pay attention to what they eat, how much they eat, and how it affects their milk every single day.

I like to compare this to feeding my children. I make sure they have a range of foods—from vegetables to fruits to grains—and then they have one dessert a day. (I’m sure it makes them digest better!)

Nutrients
Dairy cows have different nutritional needs for different periods in their lives. For instance, if they’re lactating, cows need more feed, because they are maintaining their own body and giving milk. If they are not lactating—for instance they’re pregnant and not being milked in the period before they have a calf, or they are still growing up—they do not eat as much volume.

On a lot of farms, including ours, we also group our cows. We’ll have one group that is the high producing group; which are the cows who give the most milk. We feed them a ration that meets their high-energy needs. We also have a group such as two-year-olds, which don’t eat as much, but still need all of the nutrients. As a result, their diets are customized for each stage of their life.

On the farm, while I was pregnant and nursing, I had to listen to a lot of comparisons between dairy cattle and me. I was also able to adjust my diet while lactating, and after I was done…had to stop getting up in the middle of the night to eat.

Ingredients
We take the entire corn plant, chop it into tiny pieces, and ferment it. This is an important ingredient for our cows’ diets because it is high-energy food. The next is forage, which in our case means alfalfa. Alfalfa gives the cows protein, and something to chew on; which they need to do for proper digestion.

We concentrate on growing the best crops possible for our cattle, because we know how much it means to their nutritional needs. We fertilize, plant, harvest, and store our yield with the utmost care—everything we do makes a difference in our cows’ nutrition. To raise healthy cows, you need healthy ingredients.

Difference between breeds
Dairy cows eat a lot more feed than beef cows because dairy cows have higher energy requirements due to giving milk. Dairy cows also get yeast and minerals; they need the nutrients to give high quality milk. Due to milk testing, we can get immediate feedback on how the cows’ diet is affecting their milk production. If something (the fat, the protein, etc.) seems off, we can immediately change the ration to meet the cow’s specific nutritional needs.

We even check the manure in the barn. It’s sort of like when you had newborns and had to check their diapers.

Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops
Dairy cows eat corn and alfalfa, which may be genetically modified depending upon the farm. Genetic engineering means scientists made a copy of a gene for a desired trait in one plant and used it in another plant. There is no test that could be done on milk that would show one cow ate feed from GE crops and another ate feed from non-GE crops, because the product is the same. We may see in the future that milk processors or consumers may want milk from dairy cows fed non-GE crops. If that were to happen, farmers would have to grow many more acres to make up for the loss to weeds and bugs, and work on an honor system since there’s no difference in the product. Personally, as a farmer, GE crops are a tool that make us able to be better farmers, and as a result, feed our cows the best nutrition possible.

GE crops really need a better name, like ‘Doesn’t rot.’

Carla and her husband Kris are the sole owners of Evergreen Dairy in St. Johns, Michigan. She is the sixth generation to be farming on her family’s farm where they milk 400 cows, and grow crops to feed their cattle on 850 acres of corn, alfalfa and pasture.

To learn more about Carla’s farm, go to:
Blog: Truthordairy.blogspot.com
Facebook: facebook.com/truthordairy
Twitter: @carlashelley

All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.