What Does a Dairy Cow Eat?

At least one afternoon a week, as I start trying to figure out what to prepare for dinner that night, I truly wish I were a cow. Yes, I said a COW; you didn’t read that incorrectly. It would be total luxury to have my meals calculated for my tastes, nutritional and caloric needs, adjusted for the season of the year and delivered to me ready to eat. I’d be in pure heaven!

Dairy Cow’s Diet aka Rations

  • A dairy cow’s diet isn’t just grain; that would be like saying people eat only meat and potatoes – it would be incredibly boring but also nutritionally deficit.
  • A cow has to have a variety of feed components to ensure she remains healthy, and can produce a strong calf and top quality milk.
  • Her rations need to be adjusted according to her age and the stage of her breeding/milking cycle:
    • Young heifers need good nutrition just like growing teenagers, with age-appropriate calories and protein to ensure steady growth for the future “girls in the barn.”
    • After a cow gives birth, she needs special nutrition to regain her strength and body condition, just like every new mom.

Did you know?

  • Dairy cows’ daily diets are planned by a nutritionist who knows the characteristics of each cow on the dairy and knows exactly how much protein, fiber (“forage” in farmer lingo) and the types of minerals and vitamins she needs.
  • Dairy cows often eat as much as 100 pounds of rations a day, made up of a balanced combination of forage, grain, mineral supplements and protein-rich feeds such as soybean meal.
  • Forage is the basis for a cow’s diet. This includes pasture grass in the spring and summer months, or it can be chopped grass (silage).
    • Farmers cut silage during the summer when grass is at its prime quality, then ferment it to lock in the nutrient content.
    • Silage can be chopped rye grass, green corn stalks, sorghum grasses, wheat, coastal Bermuda grasses, Sudan hay and other high-nutrient grasses.

Every bite of feed a cow gets is analyzed for nutrients such as calcium, fiber, protein, phosphorus, several vitamins and sodium, plus a long list of other critical nutrients.

I wish I had someone to take care of all that analysis for me, bring it right to my table and then wash the dishes afterward. I’d be one happy gal!

By Jordan Manning

Jordan grew up in the cattle industry and uses her love of agriculture every day to help people understand more about their food. She previously worked at the Texas Beef Council. When she's not working, Jordan enjoys cheering for the Aggies. Learn more about Jordan

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