Why Do Dairy Cows Eat More Than Grass?

Even cows take advantage of nice weather, and that often sees them happily munching on grass.  

Depending on the dairy farm, cows may spend time outside. As the weather warms, you’ll find cows relaxing in a creek or grazing on convenient grass. When spotting cows out for summer pasture, many people assume the cool grass the cow lies on and chews gives a cow everything she needs, but there’s often more to a cow’s diet than what can be found in a grassy field. 

Like people, cows have nutritional needs that are met through a variety of foods. And also like people, cows need professionals to adapt their diets throughout the year, as well as on factors like age, weight, and milking or dry, to remain healthy, happy cows. While grass-fed cows are healthy, personalized diets help cows get the benefits best for them. To provide cows their specific nutritional requirements, dairy farmers feed cows a mix of feed they call Total Mixed Ration (TMR). Think of what comprises TMR as a cow’s version of the 5 food groups humans strive for each day. But what are their portions? 

Most of a dairy cow’s diet (over 50%) is comprised of grass. This part of the diet consists largely of corn and its leaves and/or chopped alfalfa and its hay. Hay and silage sound similar enough to what a grazing cow may find, but cows also enjoy grain (under 25%), both grown specifically for them on the farm and from grain byproducts of other industries.  

And the remaining part of a cow’s diet? 

Additional byproducts like orange pulp, almond hulls, and more are also used, so don’t be surprised if you recognize some ingredients mixed in with the grain and pellets. With their four-chambered stomachs, cows can break down products humans cannot and use the energy and nutrients in these products that would otherwise go to waste. And this energy is important for pregnant or milking cows, especially as the temperatures rise. 

Cows need salt, vitamins, and minerals in their feed. While this can be found in the ingredients of their TMR already listed, they may need more. These substances play important roles in a cow’s health. While you may see cows enjoying a salt lick, a supplement can also be added to the cow’s TMR to provide necessary levels of vitamins, salt, and minerals like phosphorus, sodium and chlorine that are the most likely to be lower while cows enjoy the summer pasture.  

While cows can survive on the levels of nutrients available in a pasture, they may not be receiving what they need to reach maximum milk production through grass alone. Working with a nutritionist, veterinarian, or other professional, dairy farmers can create a diet that will promote a cow’s well-being when a day in the pasture isn’t enough. 

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