Farm to Glass: Why Cow Nutrition Matters

A Michigan mom and 'cow dietitian' explains why milk's nutrition starts with animal health.

Balancing a kid with work is challenging. Now, try adding 450 milking cows to the mix. That’s the case for Michigan mom Kristi Keilen, and this dairy farmer loves every minute of it.

Keilen owns the Lansing-area K&K Dairy Farms, LLC with her husband – and is a dairy nutritionist for six total farms, including her own. Her key to balancing it all? Organization and good nutrition, for both the animals and her family.

Keilen’s day starts at 4 a.m. with feeding the calves and tending to morning chores. After that, she gets her young son Brody ready and off to daycare. She then heads to the barn to work with her cows – or drives to a customer’s farm to feed theirs.

“I’m basically a dietitian for cows. I create rations, or recipes, to feed the cows so that they have the most balanced nutrition, down to the individual vitamins and minerals,” Keilen says. “Nutrition is so important. The healthier you are, the longer you’ll live and the more you’ll be able to get done. And that’s true for both cows and humans.”

A balanced diet

Unlike humans, cows aren’t tempted by things like chocolate cake. Instead, their diet is closely analyzed by Keilen. “We create a recipe that is basically put in a blender and fed the same way, every single day.”

That “recipe” is something known as Total Mixed Ratio, or TMR, which is a mix of feed dairy farmers serve to their cows.

Creating the perfect recipes for her cows is a science. Keilen samples the feed ingredients and sends them off to a lab to find out exactly how much of each nutrient they contain. Next, she enters the data into a computer program and uses it to create the diet that is closest to the exact parameters that research says makes a healthy cow. In this way, cows eat a better balanced diet than most humans!

So what exactly is in cow feed? TMR includes corn silage (the entire corn plant chopped), haylage (alfalfa plant with moisture remaining), and hay (alfalfa that has been dried). It also contains by-products from other agricultural practices: soy meal (soybeans with the oil removed), distillers grains (leftover from brewing and ethanol industries) and cottonseed (what remains after cotton boll is removed to make clothing). In other states, cows eat orange peels and almond hulls. And, it turns out that a cow’s diet is actually helping the planet because these by-products would have otherwise become landfill.

Through vigorous digestion using their four stomach compartments, cows turn these plants that humans cannot eat into nutrition that helps them make the milk that provides us with nutrition and enjoyment.

Happy, healthy cows

Keilen, like other dairy nutritionists, is thorough in her duties. “I analyze their manure once a week to ensure they are staying healthy and make sure the food is being digested properly,” Keilen says.

It’s not just screening cowpies. She also pays close attention to their milk production. “Just like if you were breast-feeding, if your production drops, it usually means you need to either drink more water or eat more of something. The same is true with the cows.”

Every cow on the farm is also checked daily. “You can tell a lot about their health by their appearance. Their weight says a lot, and so do their ears and how much they’re eating.” Inspecting the cows is crucial. “If a human isn’t feeling well, they can describe their symptoms to the doctor. Cows can’t do that, so we have to monitor them closely.”

Of course, the business of cow health doesn’t fall solely to Keilen. “We also have a veterinarian that comes out weekly. He does everything from diagnosing sick cows to performing ultrasounds on pregnant cows to creating and implementing protocols to help keep the cows healthy.”

Working as a dairy farmer and nutritionist is more than just Keilen’s livelihood. She genuinely cares for the well-being of the cows. “Being able to care for these girls is so amazing. I’ve always had a love for animals, and I knew that by being a nutritionist I could help make the cows healthier – and I can help the farmers be better caretakers for their animals by providing them with the best nutrition possible, since healthy animals produce the best wholesome milk.”

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