What Do Cows Eat?
We tell people to drink milk because it is full of nutrition. In fact, a glass of milk has nine essential nutrients needed for a healthy body, including calcium, vitamin D and protein. But have you ever thought about what it takes for a cow to make all that nutritious milk?
What do they eat in order to be healthy and produce high quality milk? The answer may surprise you!
Dairy farmers feed cows living in barns a mix of feed they call Total Mixed Ration, or TMR. It’s a little bit like a casserole for cows.
A handful of TMR, or “cow casserole.”
It can include different things, depending on the farm and area of the country, but here are some common ingredients in Michigan:
- Corn silage – The entire corn plant (stalk, cob, kernels and leaves) chopped into various sized pieces
- Haylage – The chopped alfalfa plant has a lot of moisture in it and is stored in airtight bags or covered by large pieces of plastic to protect it from the elements.
- Soy Meal – Soybeans that are cracked, dried, heated and pressed. During this process, the soybean oil is removed and used for other things such as cooking oil.
- Distillers grain – A byproduct of the brewing and ethanol industries, this is the grain left after the sugar and starch has been removed
- Hay – The chopped alfalfa plant that is dried by the sun, mowed, and then gathered into large bales that can be round or square
- Cottonseed – After the cotton boll (the fluffy part of the plant) is removed and used to make our clothes, the cottonseed is harvested and given to dairy cows to provide energy
Recognize anything in that list that humans eat? Nope! Sure, we eat corn on the cob, but we certainly stop at the cob! That’s the cool thing about cows. They are super digesters because they have four parts to their stomach. They take things we cannot eat and through vigorous digestion, they get all of the nutrients out of the plants. These nutrients help them make the nutritious milk we all love.
Cows really help the planet by eating the by-products of food production that would have become landfill. For example, cottonseed really has no other use but cows are able to digest it and make milk from the nutrients. In other states, cows eat almond hulls, orange peels and even eat damaged Skittles. But rest assured, a dairy nutritionist carefully makes sure the TMR is balanced and these ‘extras’ can part of the energy, fiber and nutrient mix.
Watch Michigan Dairy farmer Katelyn Packard explain what she and her family feed their cows.
What happens after cows eat their feed and make milk for us to drink? Well, they make manure! This manure has nutrients in it that are good for the soil, so some farmers use it to fertilize their fields before planting the crops. This is a cycle that’s good for the environment and us.