So what do cows eat anyways?


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“Seek first to understand, then to be understood”

A few weeks ago I made up a little survey that I sent out to friends who sent it to their friends and so on, until I had well over 200 responses from folks of all walks of life and from all over the country. I wanted to know how people outside of the bubble of agriculture really feel about food and farming. I think it’s important to check my perspective from time to time and make sure I can still see the greater picture. I am the kind of person who tends to ask too many questions. But I think it’s better to annoy with lots of questions then it is to assume. So I asked… Do you buy organic? Do you have concerns about how your food is produced? ect. The last question I asked was “What ingredients make up cow feed?”, I asked this because I had been hearing some really interesting ideas about what goes into breakfast for cows. The responses were interesting and varied. I was happy to see that many had a pretty good idea of what cows eat. But there were also several people who thought we fed dead cows to cows or other “disgusting crap”. There were responses that showed fear that they didn’t know what cows ate. Many felt that the size of the farm dictated what ingredients were used, with small farms feeding “good” things and large farms feeding “bad” things. I knew I wanted to tackle the subject but I also knew that each farm had their own special recipe and showing one farm in on part of the country just wasn’t as convincing, it’s easy to brush off an explanation as “well that’s just your farm, other farms feed bad things”. So I reached out to other dairy folks from all sizes of farms and from all around the country and asked them to share what goes in the mixer at their farm. I’ve included their links below, I hope you can find the answers to your questions and if you have more questions I hope you ask these folks, they want to answer your questions because we all know that farming and producing our food, now more than ever, needs to be done with transparency.

This is a handful of dairy cow feed also called TMR.

We use a TMR mixer to blend the feed for the cows. TMR stands for Total Mixed Ration, think of it as a food processor for cow feed. We work with a dairy cattle nutritionist to design our recipe. Each group of cows gets a specially designed meal to meet their needs. The cows who are milking get a high energy feed, the cows who are on “vacation” before they calve get a diet with lots of fiber to keep them full and at a good weight, our heifers get a special mix that provides what they need to grow. It’s a big balancing act and the mix is constantly tweeked to make sure it’s right.

This is our current recipe for our milking herd. It is broke down into what each cow gets per day.

High Moisture Corn- 9lbs. (High Moisture Corn is corn that has been ground up and fermented)

Protein-Distillers Grain- Dry Corn- 7.5lbs (We mix these 3 ingredients together before hand because the amounts each cow gets per day is small and it’s easier to be accurate with a premix)

Corn Silage- 40lbs (Corn Silage is the entire corn plant, stalk, leaves and all that is chopped up fine and fermented)

Hayledge- 28lbs (Chopped up and fermented Alfalfa hay)

Brewer’s Grains- 32lbs (This is the leftover grains from beer production. The cows love it and it’s an abundant ingredient here in Wisconsin!)

Cotton Seed- 3lbs (After the cotton fiber is processed the seeds are left they are a great source of energy for our cows)

Vitamins/Minerals- 2lbs (Just like your daily multivitamin, our girls get what they need that isn’t in their feed)

Wheatledge- 3lbs (Again, the chopped and fermented whole wheat plant.)

Alcomp- 1.75lbs (This is an ingredient that most folks wouldn’t think of, Alcomp is a liquid byproduct of the distilling process, and is high in energy.)

So to save you the math, this adds up to 128.25lbs of feed per day, per cow. Since we milk about 100 cows that means we mix close to 13,000lbs of feed each day and that just for the milking cows.

Sarah is a dairy nutritionist from Southwest Wisconsin, she does a great job explaining why we are so particular with what we feed our cows. Check out her post here, on her brand new blog!

My friend Robin wrote a post today that talks more about feeding byproducts to dairy cows. She is a Dairy Nutritionist and is a great source of information. Check out her post here on Just Farmers. She also wrote a guest post for Cause Matters a while ago that shows how cow feed recipes have changed and developed to meet the needs of dairy cows over time, check it out here, it’s a pretty interesting read!

Our neighbor wrote a great guest post about what they feed on their dairy farm, Pat was inspired to share her farm’s story and recipe after reading a story in Consumer Reports that was full of misinformation. Check out her post here on the SlowMoneyFarm blog. 

Dr. Kathy Swift is a dairy cow Veterinarian (and artist!) from Florida, she did a guest post a while back on what dairy cows eat in Florida. Check it out here, who knew cows liked oranges? 

Brenda is a dairy farmer and a Mom in Ohio, her family milks 600 cows and she shares their farm’s recipe for cow feed here, on her blog. 

Dairy farmer, Ray Prock from California shows what he feeds the cows on his family’s California dairy farm here.

The Zweber Family’s Organic Dairy farm is in Minnesota, Emily and Tim show how they make feed for the cows on their farm here, with lots of great pictures too! 

Jodi Oleen shares her experiences Brewers Grain, from the other side of the beer bottle after she and her new husband buy some beef steers! Check out her funny post here.

The Dairy Goddess shares what Chica the cow and the rest of the girls eat on their California Dairy here. 

I hope these links put to rest any misinformation, lies, untruths and confusion about what cows eat. No dead cows, no hormones, a few surprises, but all in all not exactly shocking. As always the best place to get accurate information is straight from the source.  I hope that everyone listed here today can become a source of information for you so you can make the best decisions at the grocery store for your family. As always I ask that you please share this post, help farmers get their stories out and be heard!

15 Comments on So what do cows eat anyways?

  1. Pam
    May 17, 2013 at 12:22 pm (7 years ago)

    do most dairy farmers use feed from genetically modified corn or soy? my understanding is they can’t if they are certified organic, but I’m looking for clarification. also, I was under the impression that cows’ stomachs are designed to only eat grass. wondering why they would need anything else and if they can properly digest corn and other grains. thanks! I’d really appreciate it if you can help me out with this!

    • dairycarrie
      May 18, 2013 at 6:20 pm (7 years ago)

      Hi Pam,
      Your questions could be a whole post on it’s own! I can’t speak for all farmers but I think many do use GMO seeds.. and some don’t! We all make choices based on what works for our farm. I am not sure on the rules for organic and GMO’s. I’ve heard the idea that cow’s stomachs can’t digest corn before and I think it’s kind of silly. A cow is a ruminant, which means it’s stomach has 4 compartments made to digest feed of all kinds. When our cows eat corn, very little of it ends up coming out the other side. We feed our cows a mixture of feeds to meet the nutritional demands of a cow that produces a lot of milk. Just like a woman who is lactating, a cow that is giving milk burns a lot of calories. Even grazing dairies will usually supplement their cows with vitamins and minerals. Here in Wisconsin in the winter green grass isn’t an option and if we only fed hay, our cows wouldn’t have enough energy to produce very much milk. That’s the short version answer. Please let me know if you have other questions I can answer.