What Cows Eat and Why It Matters

What cows eat determines their health, the quality of the dairy products and the impact on the environment. Steve Good, animal nutritionist and expert explains.

Have you ever considered what cows eat? You might think that they have relatively simple nutritional needs, but in fact, the diet of a dairy cow is complex and finely tuned. A cow’s diet directly influences not just the health and productivity of the cow, but also the quality of milk it produces. It even affects the sustainability of the farming practices involved. 

“Cows are great recyclers,” says dairy nutritionist Steve Good. “They are able to use nutritional sources that humans can’t and they turn those sources into highly nutritious products for people.”

The cornerstones of a cow’s diet

Good has spent most of his life caring for cows, both in his current position and growing up on a dairy farm. Plus, he holds dual degrees in animal science and dairy nutrition from Michigan State University. His experience has given him rare insights into the best food for cows and their care.

“Michigan dairy farmers want our cows to be happy and healthy,” says Good. “And a lot of that is tied into what we feed them and how we maintain a comfortable environment for them.”

A cow’s diet is primarily built around fiber, with alfalfa hay, alfalfa silage and corn silage being the main sources. “Silage” refers to the entire green part of the plant, which is not digestible for humans. Interestingly, silage has something in common with the fermented foods that are so good for people.

“The silage we feed cows is what I would compare to the sauerkraut humans eat,” says Good. “It’s a fermented product with huge nutritional benefits for cows. Instead of causing farm waste with silage, we are able to feed it to the cows, making it a sustainable source of nutrition.”

A diet high in digestible fiber is also important for maintaining the health of the cow and optimizing milk production. Cows need energy, protein and essential minerals like calcium, says Good. “Dairy milk is rich in calcium so it naturally follows that cows require a calcium-rich diet.”

Equally important? Clean water. “Dairy cows need to be hydrated with plenty of water since milk is mostly made up of water,” says Good. This water is cleverly recycled on farms in order to meet sustainability standards

What Cows Eat and Why It Matters

The lifecycle diet of dairy cows

From birth, the dietary needs of dairy cows evolve. Calves start with a diet of milk and grain for the first eight weeks of life, says Good. “As cows grow, their diet transitions to include forage and grain, eventually incorporating fermented products as they develop the capacity to digest them.”

This progression is not just about growth but preparing them for their roles in the milking herd. Post-lactation, Good says that cows are placed in a maternity herd for some well-deserved R & R. “At this stage, the focus shifts to rest and recovery with a diet rich in fiber, energy, protein and corn silage.”

The rest and careful diet ensures that cows are healthy, comfortable and well-prepared for the next lactation cycle. “The high level of precision that we give to a post-lactation cow’s diet and overall care can be likened to that of a professional athlete,” says Good.

Dairy nutrition challenges

Variability in feed quality from year to year, influenced by factors such as weather, can affect the food sources given to cows. However, Good says that Michigan dairy farmers are well-equipped to handle these natural challenges.

Steve Good Dairy Farmer taking care of his animals
Steve Good, animal nutritionist and expert. Photo Credit: United Dairy Industry of Michigan

“We address this by sending samples to labs for analysis and adjust the diet accordingly to meet the cows’ nutritional needs. This is done based on the Nutritional Requirement of Cattle (NRC) guidelines,” he explains. This careful approach ensures that despite changes in feed quality, cows receive a diet that meets their complex nutritional needs.

Technology and cow nutrition

Modern technologies have significantly impacted the nutritional management of dairy cows. Innovations like robotic feeding and milking systems, pedometers and ingestible health monitors allow for precise management of each cow’s health and well-being. 

“Technology has really changed the quality of care we can give cows,” says Good. “It allows us to discover any health issues much more quickly than in the past. This enables us to be even more efficient in how we address and resolve them.” These technologies have not only enhanced the efficiency of monitoring and feeding but Good points out that it also underscores the industry’s commitment to cow comfort and health.

The environmental angle

You may be surprised to learn that what cows eat plays a pivotal role in environmental sustainability. By consuming by-products of human food production that would otherwise go to waste, dairy cows act as key players in recycling and sustainability.

“There is a full-circle system,” explains Good. “The cows eat foods that would otherwise become waste, they produce manure which is used as fertilizer to grow more healthy food and in turn, they produce healthy dairy products.” 

The bigger picture

Understanding what cows eat and the careful attention given to their diet sheds light on the broader themes of animal welfare, product quality and environmental sustainability in the dairy industry. 

“I’m a parent as well as a grandparent,” says Good. “I want what’s best for humans, animals and the planet. The dairy industry has a huge support system of farmers, technology experts, nutrition experts, veterinarians and the list goes on. We are always evolving in our levels of cow comfort and care.”

Jenny Kales
Jenny Kales
Content editor Jenny Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years. A natural storyteller, she loves helping Metro Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with their audiences.


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