What to Feed a Cow

What to feed a cow.

If you get a cow and want to be a good Cow-Mommy or Daddy one of the first things you want to get right is their diet.  Many things can be prevented by making sure your cow is getting all the nutrition it needs.

This shouldn’t be complicated, after all, it’s a cow.  Cow’s eat grass.

What to Feed a Cow

Well, yes, cows eat grass……. but, unfortunately it’s not that simple.

The good news is that it’s not that complicated either.

I am not a vet.  Before you put your cow on any feeding program you should talk to your vet first.  I did.

Right now, (as I write this article), we have 8 cows on our property and 15 beef cows on another farm.  We have owned cows for years and, although we aren’t experts, we have hit some bumps and figured a few things out that may help you.

I’ll let you know what I’ve learned about feeding cows & exactly what we feed ours.

When I got my first milk cow I talked to the previous owner and our vet about her food.  Everyone said the same things, everyone was equally vague.

Feed her:

  1. Grass (pasture)
  2. Hay (dried grass)
  3. Grain (when milking)
  4. Minerals

Uuuuuh.  OK.

So this is what we did.

Ugh, ugh, ugh,

Well.  We lived through mastitis-hell.  We had a cow go down in ketosis.  We have dealt with milk fever.  And we dealt with some infertility.  Go us!

Still want to listen to me?  I wouldn’t blame you if you left.  🙂

The good news is that I’ve learned a ton and can not express how important your cow’s diet is.

Many problems and illnesses can be avoided by feeding your cows the right things from the get-go.  Equally important is knowing when to feed certain things.  And why those things are important.

If you are milking a cow, she is not a beef cow.  She is going to have different dietary needs and requirements.  We have a bunch of grass-fed, beef cows meandering around fields eating pasture and munching on a giant round bale whenever they want.  We only give them enough grain to move them around and be able to check on them.  They have minerals.  They are hunky-dory.  Beef cows aren’t too hard.

Our Jerseys are another story.

High maintenance Milk Cows.  🙂

Let’s talk about what to feed your cow & why & then I’ll tell you exactly what we feed our cows each day.

#1 PASTURE

Duh.

When it comes to pasture there are 2 factors:

  1. Is it big enough?
  2. Is it the right grass?

What’s interesting is that all pastures are NOT the same.  You may have a field of Kentucky Fescue.  You may have a field of Alfalfa.  You may have a field of mixed pasture grasses (Timothy, Rye, Fescue, Alfalfa, etc).  You may not know what you have.

THIS is why it gets complicated – your pasture may be the bomb & your cow may thrive in it…  OR it may be inadequate to meet your cows nutritional needs & you’ll need to beef up the dry (quality) hay and other feeds.

If your pasture is lacking, much of the nutritional deficiency can be solved with great hay.  Hay is dried grass.

This hay will most likely need to come from somewhere else (other than your pasture).  A poor quality pasture will turn into poor  hay if you were to cut and bale it.  So, you don’t want to do that.  If your pasture is terrible, you need to get some GREAT hay from somewhere else to meet your cows “grass-fed” dietary needs.

In the meantime – start fixing your pasture.  We have fixed pastures.  It’s not that hard.  You can even do it while cows are standing on it.  Just continue to seed it with great pasture mixes.  If you have a field of fescue, don’t reseed with fescue – get some alphafa or timothy or rye or better yet, a bag of mixed pasture grasses & spread it.

You can put down new seed in fall, spring or even winter (on the snow).  Folks around here say that the best time to seed a pasture is when there is snow on the ground.  As the snow melts it waters the seed, it holds the seed in place and grass thrives in cold weather.

By reseeding pastures a couple of time each year we can improve our pasture quality.

If you would like to get your cows off the field so you can grow new grass, or if you just have a very small area for your cow – a great solution is rotational grazing.

Rotational grazing is a system where you divide a pasture into sections and rotate the cows from field to field.  While the cows eat the pasture they are living on, the other pastures are allowed to grow and revive.  We have experienced this first hand.  We have been able to double the number of cows we keep by using rotational grazing.

Why Rotational Grazing:

  • It takes pressure off the land.
  • It allows fields to regrow and thrive.
  • It helps control the amount of damage you allow your animals to have on a field.
  • It helps you control how much pasture your cows eat (we have cows who would probably eat themselves to death if given unlimited, green pasture).
  • It prevents overgrazing (if the animals are allowed to eat the land bald, the grass may not come back – even with the cattle moved off the land).
  • If you need to reseed a pasture you can (just move the cows to one of the other pastures)
  • It reduces sickness and parasites (if the land is healthier, the cows will be too)
  • You can keep more animals on less land

How much pasture does one cow need?

It depends on how many pounds of grass you get per acre of land.  In Kentucky, the rule of thumb is 1 acre per cow.  In some areas of Texas the ratio is 10 acres of forage per head of cattle.

It is determined by the condition of the land.  Here in Kentucky with our lush, green, thick pastures we can get more cows on an acre.  In a place that is more sparse with little, natural forage per acre, the cows need more land.

Regardless of how many acres needed per head of cattle, with rotational grazing you can keep more cows on less space.

#2 HAY

I blew this one years ago.  It was our first spring with cows.  One look at the lush green gloriousness somehow told my inexperienced brain that my cows did not need hay.  The world was their buffet….. why on earth should I continue feeding hay (which costs me money) when they were swimming in grass (which is free).

Uh – Grass Tetany.

I didn’t yet know about ketosis and grass tetany and magnesium and limiting exposure to new grass and down cows in spring.

So you don’t make the mistake I made:

  • Yes, your cows need hay available even when the grass is lush and fabulous.  Imagine eating nothing but leafy green salads all day long for weeks – this is kinda what lush green grass is for the cow.  In this scenario, my cow had very loose stools, acidic milk and eventually was wobbling and shaking.  She needed some carbs.
  • Yes, your cows need extra magnesium in spring.  For all the details on this go here.  I put high mag blocks & loose minerals in my fields in spring.
  • Yes, you may need to limit your cow’s exposure to lush green pasture – especially in early morning.  When the new grass is still damp from the morning dew it is most dangerous.  You can avoid some problems by waiting until the dew has dried to turn your cows out on spring pastures.

#3 GRAIN

I feed my Jersey cows grain.  I am not apologetic about it.  I don’t think grain is evil.  I think there are healthy grains.  I buy my cattle feed locally.  It is made at the local mill.  It is a mixture of wheat, bean and corn.  It is filled with vitamins & minerals.  It is a great supplement to their diet.  I think it’s kinda like taking a multivitamin (that includes some needed carbs) each day (for cows).

I once tried to make a Jersey cow a grass-fed cow.  It was bad.  I made her really sick.  I felt terrible.  I don’t want to do that again.

I give my cows so little grain that I just really don’t think isn’t an issue.  99% of what my cows eat is grass.  I’m not sure why we want to take away that tiny bit of grain from them?

  1. If it keeps them happy (so I can milk them).
  2. And it makes care taking easier (so I can move them).
  3. And helps stabilize their diets (so they don’t get sick).
  4. Why not feed them a little grain?

I’m not sure what the big deal is.  Yes, I feed my Jerseys a little grain every day.  It makes my life so much easier & helps them stay healthy.

#4 MINERALS

Last is the minerals.  Nobody mentioned this to me when I got my first cow.  When I was a small girl there were some horses on our family farm, so I knew about salt blocks and mineral blocks.  I did have those in the fields for my cows.

I was introduced to the importance of a good mineral program through the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association.  I have used Helfter feeds mineral program with sick cows.  It is a great program and really expensive.

Bagged loose (all in one) minerals have everything a cow needs all ground up in one bag.  It is simple and affordable.

We have a healthy herd now and use a high-quality cattle mineral (all in one).  It is a loose mineral and is in the run-in so the weather can’t get to it.  In addition to the “all in one” mineral we offer a few “individual” minerals too.  Minerals like magnesium & calcium that our cows seem to really need extra.

MY COWS

Over the years we have found a system that seems to work well with our Jerseys.  I’m not saying that my feeding allowance is perfect and it may or may not be right for your cows.

It’s hard because the ‘right’ amount of feed is going to change for every cow. Her age, weight, breed, pasture, hay quality and mineral program will all have an impact on how much feed to give her.

Our Jerseys are around 900 pounds. They are both 3 years old.

Now, with all that said, let me tell you what we feed our cows.

Our Feeding Program:

  1. Rotation.  Our Jerseys are rotated on 2 pastures.  Our pastures were questionable at first.  We did not “make” the fields, we bought the land & the fields were already here.  We have spent years reseeding our cow fields with a pasture mix in order to improve the quality of the grass.
  2. We feed alphafa hay in addition to pasture.

    Simple feeders like this one keep the hay off the ground so you have less wasted

    We have used round bales & square.  For winter (when pasture is unavailable) our vet recommended 25-35 pounds of dry hay per day per cow.  This is about 1/2 of a square hay bale (our square bales weigh over 50 pounds each).  We give them 1/2 of it in the morning and the other half in the evening.   You can easily see of your cow is well-fed or hungry by looking at her rumen.  It is on the left side of her body just before the her hip bones.  If it is sunk in – it is empty, she is hungry.  During times when fresh pasture is available we simply leave some dry hay in the feeders for them to eat if they want it.  They may not eat much of it, but it is available if they chose.

  3. 1 gallon of cattle feed.  We give each Jersey 1 gallon of grain per day.  It is a 3 grain mix (wheat, bean & corn) that is enriched with vitamins & minerals.  Feeding a little grain supplements their diet and makes it easier for me to work with the cows.
  4. Minerals always.  Our mineral bins are always available (in every field) and always filled.  We use a high-quality loose mineral along with a few individual minerals.  In spring I buy them some high-mag blocks and high mag minerals for them as well.

No matter what your land looks like or what kind of cow you have, I think a good feeding program is obtainable.  If your field looks rough you can reseed and build a great pasture.  If there’s no grass for your cow, you can always buy hay.  If your cows look rough, there is always feed, minerals and grass that can give them health.

We have taken a cow who had worms, lice and allergies and saw her health transform before our eyes on a great feeding program.

What do you feed your cows?  Share any tips you have in the comments below!

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XO,

Candi

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