I’ve had the opportunity to visit several North Carolina dairy farms and one thing they all have in common is their commitment to be environmental stewards. Cows are the top priority on a dairy farm, for good reason. When cows are well cared for, it’s easier for them to stay healthy and produce high-quality milk.
I was surprised to learn that dairy farmers work with animal nutritionists (think of them as Registered Dietitians for cows) to create specialized cows’ feed to meet their exact nutritional needs based on activity level, stage of life, pregnancy and more. One farm I visited milked 600 cows and, every day, they mixed 13 different recipes using various ingredients from their cow’s “pantry.”
Dairy cows are the ultimate up-cyclers. They have a unique four-chambered stomach, allowing them to eat by-products of food and fiber that would otherwise be thrown away. Instead, the cow converts them into a nutritious food for humans. According to one study, 80 percent of what cows eat can’t be consumed by people. Look in a dairy farm’s “pantry” and you’ll see many by-products humans consider food waste, but cows consider delicious.
These ingredients can vary depending on what crops are grown in the area. North Carolina farmers grow a lot of row crops. I visited a cotton farm and gin last summer. All of their cottonseed, which is separated from the lint during ginning, is sold to local dairies for use in cow feed. Another common ingredient is soybean hulls, which are leftover when the beans are processed for oil and meal.
Florida farms are known for growing citrus crops like oranges. Citrus pulp is what remains after the fruit is squeezed for juice. Pulp can be dried and formed into pellets, a good energy source for dairy cows.
Even the beer industry has been able to cut their food waste thanks to dairy cows. Breweries use grain to make beer. After nutrients, sugars and proteins have been extracted, breweries are left with spent brewers’ grains. Many now deliver it to local dairies, taking what was once thrown away and turning it into a valuable feed ingredient.
What we call food waste, dairy cows consider lunch. A cow’s ability to eat what humans can’t is reducing food waste while giving these working moms the nourishment they need to produce a wholesome beverage for us to enjoy.
Heather Barnes grew up in the city before falling in love with agriculture as a student at Virginia Tech. Graduating with degrees in Animal Science and Agriculture Education, she started her career as an Agriculture Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension. She now works for the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as a Marketing Specialist for horticulture crops. Married to a farmer, she and her husband are raising three sons, sweet potatoes, tobacco, corn, soybeans and wheat. You can find her sharing stories about farm life on social media at Carolina Farm Mom.