If you had asked me a few years ago why we feed grain to our cattle, I probably would have been stunned by the question. What? What do you mean? What dairy farmer doesn’t feed grain? That’s so weird. How does the cow get enough energy? Enough nutrients? What would you feed? An
d yes, even I tried it myself a very long, long time ago.
I’ll state up front my DF and I think feeding grain is an important part of a balanced diet for our cows. However, our girls (and boys) get out on the pasture just as soon as we can get them there in the spring and they stay out as long as they can in the fall. We have beautiful pastures, abundant with fresh grass – a wonderful resource for our use. It’s good exercise for the cows and I think they enjoy the fresh air perhaps as much as I do on a warm, sunny afternoon.
When they come in the barn to be milked, we feed them a total mixed ration (TMR) that includes grain, grass silage and other minerals. The grain is a mix of ingredients, including corn and soy and others to balance the nutrient needs of the cattle given the other feed they get – like the pasture and grass silage. The grass silage is basically cut grass saved in a big pile in a “bunker silo,” where it is covered and left to cure. They also may get dried hay from time to time. Pasture, grass silage and hay are called forages while the grain and minerals are concentrates. We have a dairy feed nutritionist who helps us determine the right and precise mix of the ingredients to feed. He’s sort of like the cows’ personal dietician.
It so happens that I’ve procrastinated so long on this post from when I started it in September, that it’s now the first of February and we happen to be coming out of a severe cold snap that lasted almost a week. Temperatures here dipped to double digits below zero last week, never mind the wind chill. While we do our best to keep the cows warm, it does still get cold in the barns. One way to get be certain they have the energy they need to stay warm in our lovely winter temps in northern Vermont is to feed grain, specifically corn which is an excellent source of energy. We don’t really think of keeping warm as a body maintenance requirement in the summertime, but it sure is important now!
I asked a few friends from around New England their opinions on feeding grain and here is what they had to say:
From Beth, a dairy farmer in Hinsdale, N.H.: “Dairy cows are the athletes of the farm animal world. A cow uses the amount of energy it would take a human to run two consecutive marathons in one day. Cows need the carbohydrate load just to meet those incredible needs. It’s challenging to make sure cows get a balanced diet to meet those needs. Corn is an excellent source of energy when used as part of a balanced diet.”
From Carrie, a livestock farmer in Shelburne, Mass.: “We feed grain year-round to our sheep, unlike most farmers, because the ‘on & off’ feeding of grain causes weak points in their growing wool-much like when a human diets, you can see the portion of thinner part in the hair follicle. It costs more money, but it a better bet for us so that we know for sure that the wool yarn we sell is of the absolute best quality we can produce.
Our pigs live happy carefree lives in pastures, but are also supplemented with up to five pounds of a non-GMO complete and balanced grain ration, and a few pounds of local corn grown twelve miles away, for extra energy. It supports the local economy, and keeps hundreds of acres of local fields under cultivation.”
From Tiffany, a dairy and beef cattle farmer in western N.H.: “Cows need a complete and balanced diet just like my husband and children do, so adding corn to the grass, oats, and barley they receive makes this happen. The diet changes throughout a steer’s life depending on his age, and cows too have different nutritional requirements depending on their age. We have a nutritionist who helps us balance the diet. A little known fact is that corn is actually a grass, too.”
I’m choosing to not get into the biology behind the plants that we use to feed the animals – biology is not my forte. I will, however, share posts from other farmers who have written about the subject from across the country. These are folks that have different perspectives, farm in different environments, etc., but to whom I look to for advice or insight as well. Specifically, these posts dive into the biology of the feed ingredients and the cow’s digestive system much deeper than I can.
Agriculture Proud, Ryan Goodman, Tennessee – Ask a Farmer: Does feeding corn harm cattle?
Common Sense Agriculture’s Blog, Jeff Fowle, California – It’s More than Corn (series)
Cow Art and More, Kathy Swift, DVM, Florida – What Do Cows Eat and Why? (guest post on Janice Person’s blog)
The bottom line is, there are different options for feeding animals. At a farmers’ market last summer, a person would not purchase beef from me because we do not feed a strictly grass-fed diet. We have very valid reasons why we feed other ingredients as I’ve laid out; the bottom line for us is determining what makes sense for the cows. Unfortunately the customer was a paper order through another vendor at the market so I was not able to explain directly to her why we feed grain. I suppose my chance is here now.
If you reading this post have any other questions about what our cows eat, please leave me a comment below. I will do my best to answer them.