The Complex Science Behind Feeding Cows

The Complex Science Behind Feeding Cows


Feeding Cows

Many people may think that feeding cows is a simple task, but it’s not! There is a lot of science that goes into feeding cows.

Like people, cows have various nutritional requirements, and they need a balanced diet of carbohydrates, protein, and fat in order to stay healthy and strong. Healthy cows are happy cows, and happy cows produce the most milk. So on the dairy, we try, the best we can, to meet the nutritional demands of the cows.

Cow nutrition is really similar to human nutrition. In order to be healthy, you must have a balanced diet. On the dairy, we make sure the cow has a balanced diet.

Healthy cows are happy cows so step into our dairy’s kitchen to see what the cows eat, and how we keep them healthy.

Feed Types

Hay Bales  Cottonseed

**Left: Alfalfa Hay Bales, Right: Cottonseed (The cottonseed is a good source of energy for the cow. The seeds have oil inside)**

On the dairy, we feed a variety of feed to cows. Because cows are ruminants, they can digest plants and other foods that humans and other animals cannot. This is due to the cows unique digestive system with 4 stomachs. The bacteria in the cows stomach actually break down the organic compounds so the cow can digest grass and other feeds.

The advantage of this unique digestive system is that cows can eat a variety of feeds. In fact they are great recyclers.

Unlike the mid-west, California does not have nearly the amount of corn available as feed for the cows. So instead of feeding high-priced corn, dairies in California often look for other food sources for the cows. Many of these alternative feed sources are the by-products from various food industries.

Cows can eat a lot of different feeds. The following is a list of some various feeds that California cows may eat:

  Grape Pumice

**Left: our pile of corn silage, Right: the pile of grape pumice (the leftovers from making wine)**

  • – Corn Silage, (chopped and fermented corn)
  • – Oats Silage, (chopped and fermented oats)
  • – Alfalfa Hay
  • – Wheat
  • – Cottonseed, (the seed from growing cotton)
  • – Almond Hulls, (the outside shell of an almond)
  • – Distillers Grain, (leftovers from the ethanol plant)
  • – Brewers Grain , (the mash from beer making)
  • – Grape Pumice, (the leftover skins and seeds from grapes after pressing them for wine)
  • – Tomato Pumice
  • – Pomegranates
  • – Bakery Waste, (leftover bakery waste i.e. bread, donuts)
  • – Broccoli
  • – Oranges
  • – Garlic
  • – Others

Dried Distillers  Almond Hulls

**Left: the dried distillers grain, Right: almond hulls aka cow candy (they love them)**

There are many more by-products that can be fed to cows, but really depends on the location in California. Some of these feeds are economical for some dairies, but not so economical for another.

The benefit to Californians in all this is that the cows are recycling all these different “wastes” that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Grouping Cows

**Licking her Nose**

In order to feed the cows the best we can, the cows are grouped into different groups according to their stage in life. Like people, cows have different stages of life. Some cows are young, some are old, some are mothers, some are producing a lot of milk, and some are producing no milk.

Some cows are producing a high amount of milk, so they need high amounts of energy, and protein. Other cows are not producing milk so they don’t need the extra feed, or they will get too fat.

The goal is to feed cows according to their nutritional requirements so they can maintain healthy bodyweights so they can live long happy lives.

A Cow Dietitian

Sample Feed Ration

**The nutritionist’s recipe of different ingredients for some cows on our dairy**

Every dairy in California has a nutritionist who takes all the various feeds that are available, and combines them to suit each cows stage in life.

All the ingredients are analyzed for various nutrients such as protein, minerals, ect. then combined to create a balanced meal for the cow. The nutritionists job is to create the healthiest meal possible so the cow can meet her nutritional demands.

The nutritionist basically takes all the ingredients, combines them according to their nutrient values, and makes a recipe that the dairy can create so they can feed the cows a healthy balanced diet.

Feed Analysis

**Different nutrients that feeds are tested for**

Feeding the Feed

The Feed Wagon

**The Feed Wagon/ Mixer**

Feeding and creating the ration are two different things. It’s easy to calculate something on paper, but it’s more difficult to make it happen in real life.

Since we spend so much time making sure the cows are eating balanced diets, we use some modern technology to ensure we feed what the nutritionist says we should.

Our feed wagon is like a giant mixer. It is a big wagon with mixers inside that mix, and blend the different ingredients together.

On the wagon there is a weight scale. So every ingredient is added according to weight. We add a certain amount of pounds of ingredient X, and combine it with pounds of ingredients Y and Z.

Every feed is added according to the specifications or recipe that the nutritionist creates.

Healthy Cows

** The Cows Eating**

This article only summarizes the complex job of feeding cows, noting there is a lot of science and research that has been done over the years to find out how to feed cows properly, but hopefully it gives a better picture of how dairies treat their cows.

Every dairy’s real goal is to take care of cows and keep them healthy. Feeding the cows is just one example of the amount of effort and knowledge that goes towards feeding cows, and keeping them healthy.

**A bunch of Curious Cows**


  1. Great article! Great site! If you want to look at high nutritional corn silage, or forage corn, check us out on the web, or better yet, call me, Anthony, at 866-444-1044. Keep the articles coming. I will keep coming back to learn more from your site.

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