What do cows eat?

What Do Cows Like to Eat?

Farmers grow different types of crops on their farms, and it’s true that some of that goes to feed animals. We know there is confusion about what kind of farming makes the best use of our resources, and we want to help explain part of that today.

In 2008, researchers surveyed 350 dairy farmers from around the country to find out exactly what dairy cows like to eat. After looking into those common ingredients, the researchers learned that 80 percent of what cows eat cannot be eaten by people – we simply can’t digest it.

They learned that most cow diets contain the following:

  • Grass: More than 50 percent of cow feed is actually grass (farmers call it hay and silage). While people often think dairy cows are fed a high-grain diet, in reality they eat the leaves and stems from corn, wheat and oats far more often than they are eating grain, like corn kernels.
  • Grain: Dairy cows do eat some grain, which usually makes up less than one-quarter of their diet. Some has been grown specifically for cows, and other types have been recycled after food or beverage production — like barley that has been used first to brew beer.
  • The rest of a cow’s diet includes ingredients like almond hulls, canola meal (the leftovers from producing canola oil), citrus pulp (the leftovers from making orange juice and other beverages) and more. Here’s the cool thing: These products, which were once thrown away, are actually good for cows. Cows can “unlock” the energy and nutrients in these products that would otherwise go to waste.

What about that 20 percent that we could eat? Researchers looked further and found that we wouldn’t want to eat much of it, even if we could. Only 2.2 percent of what cows eat is made up of food that people would want to eat. There simply isn’t a demand for it. So in short, cows really don’t eat food people could eat. It’s just a misconception.

This means our resources are being put to good use: Dairy cows have the unique ability to convert feed into human food. Dairy cows thrive on parts of plants that we can’t eat, even if we wanted to. They transform those plants into foods that help us thrive, including delicious and nutritious milk – and don’t forget cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and more!

Dairy farmers take their commitment to feed the nation and the world seriously. To help fight hunger, dairy farmers and companies are working with Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity, to supply gallons of milk to those who need it most via the Great American Milk Drive.

What Does a Dairy Cow Eat?

At least one afternoon a week, as I start trying to figure out what to prepare for dinner that night, I truly wish I were a cow. Yes, I said a COW; you didn’t read that incorrectly. It would be total luxury to have my meals calculated for my tastes, nutritional and caloric needs, adjusted for the season of the year and delivered to me ready to eat. I’d be in pure heaven!

Dairy Cow’s Diet aka Rations

  • A dairy cow’s diet isn’t just grain; that would be like saying people eat only meat and potatoes – it would be incredibly boring but also nutritionally deficit.
  • A cow has to have a variety of feed components to ensure she remains healthy, and can produce a strong calf and top quality milk.
  • Her rations need to be adjusted according to her age and the stage of her breeding/milking cycle:
    • Young heifers need good nutrition just like growing teenagers, with age-appropriate calories and protein to ensure steady growth for the future “girls in the barn.”
    • After a cow gives birth, she needs special nutrition to regain her strength and body condition, just like every new mom.

    Did you know?

      daily diets are planned by a nutritionist who knows the characteristics of each cow on the dairy and knows exactly how much protein, fiber (“forage” in farmer lingo) and the types of minerals and vitamins she needs.
    • Dairy cows often eat as much as 100 pounds of rations a day, made up of a balanced combination of forage, grain, mineral supplements and protein-rich feeds such as soybean meal.
    • Forage is the basis for a cow’s diet. This includes pasture grass in the spring and summer months, or it can be chopped grass (silage).
        cut silage during the summer when grass is at its prime quality, then ferment it to lock in the nutrient content.
      • Silage can be chopped rye grass, green corn stalks, sorghum grasses, wheat, coastal Bermuda grasses, Sudan hay and other high-nutrient grasses.

      Every bite of feed a cow gets is analyzed for nutrients such as calcium, fiber, protein, phosphorus, several vitamins and sodium, plus a long list of other critical nutrients.

      I wish I had someone to take care of all that analysis for me, bring it right to my table and then wash the dishes afterward. I’d be one happy gal!

      Jordan grew up in the cattle industry and uses her love of agriculture every day to help people understand more about their food. She previously worked at the Texas Beef Council. When she’s not working, Jordan enjoys cheering for the Aggies. Learn more about Jordan.

      What Do Cows Eat?

      We aren’t the only ones eating a carefully balanced diet — dairy cows do too!

      Dairy farmers work closely with nutritionists to plan and ration a cow’s diet. So, what DO cows eat? Well, it varies from farm to farm and by the cow’s age. Keep reading or watch this fun video to learn about what dairy cows eat!

      Baby calves are fed colostrum (a mother’s first milk) within the first 24 hours of when they’re born to ensure they get all of the antibodies, nutrients and minerals needed for a healthy start. For the next 2-3 months, they will drink milk or milk replacer (like baby formula).

      jersey calf drinking milk from a bottle

      After 2-3 months, calves are weaned off milk and fed a diet of grain, hay and water. Calves are picky just like most children, so most calf grain is coated in molasses to make it sweeter and taste better.

      calves eating grain

      Heifers and cows are fed grain mixed with hay, corn silage (entire corn plant chopped and fermented) and other feeds to create what farmers and nutritionists call a total mixed ration, or TMR.

      dairy cows eating

      The TMR is made in a big mixer like the one below. The TMR is important because it ensures cows get proper nutrition. Cows, just like kids, have a tendency to sort through their meal and pick out their favorite parts (like grain), so mixing and grinding the feed together ensures they get a properly balanced meal with every bite.

      feed mixer

      And here’s a fun fact: Cows spend 3-5 hours a day eating! They consume about 100 pounds of feed and drink about a bathtub full of water (25-50 gallons) of water day.

      Dairy cows are great recyclers! They can turn inedible by-products from human food and fiber industries like citrus pulp, cottonseed and brewers grain into wholesome nutritious milk!

      What Do Cattle Eat

      What do cows eat

      One cool thing about cattle is they can eat what many other animals can’t, which is important because not all land can grow food that’s suitable for humans. The Midwest is a great example. Our soil is suited to grow a variety of grasses and grains, which form our unique ecosystem, but our stomachs can’t digest those plants. As luck would have it, those plants make perfect food for cattle. They can convert that otherwise inedible (to us) food to a nutritious (and delicious) source of protein we can digest. For that reason, they’re sometimes called nature’s great recyclers.

      So, what, exactly do cattle eat?

      It all depends on where they are in their stage of life. Animals have different needs at different times. Just like humans adjust from eating milk to baby food to recipes galore, the diet for cattle changes as they grow. Having a variety of food sources ensures they get a good variety of nutrients.

      Beef Cattle

      The typical lifespan for livestock is about two to three years, during which time they grow to about 1,200 to 1,400 pounds.

      Most beef cattle eat a combination of grasses and grains, all of which play an important nutritional role. Here’s how it breaks down:


      After birth, calves are typically raised on their mothers’ milk. They also learn to graze on fresh grass alongside their mothers and fellow calves for about six months. Then, ranchers introduce them bit by bit to other food. This is called the backgrounding phase.

      Ranchers often start with hay, since that’s closest to the fresh grasses the calves are used to. Fresh grass has a higher nutrient content than hay, but isn’t always available. Hay is a great way to preserve as much of the nutritional value of plants as possible. Another way to extend the life of that food source is to make silage. Silage is grass and other organic matter that is fermented to preserve nutrients for later use.

      Fun fact: One digestive compartment in cattle, called the rumen, ferments foods. Since silage is already fermented, it can be easier for cattle to digest.


      Depending on the time of year and availability of grasses, ranchers may also feed their cattle grains like field corn, sorghum, barley and oats. They may also incorporate cottonseed and dried distillers grains.

      Fun fact: Distillers grains are byproducts of ethanol production and even brewing alcohol, which can use Kansas-grown sorghum and corn. Rather than going to waste, these spent grains make a nutritious addition to cattle feed.

      For some cattle, this dietary transition often coincides with their transition to a feed yard for finishing. Finishing happens after the cattle are about a year old. At the feed yard (also called a feedlot), the variety of food sources helps bring cattle up to the target weight for harvesting. The grains also help add ribbons of fat to the meat — called marbling — which contribute to the rich taste of the beef. Some ranchers, like the Kohmans, raise their cattle through every life stage, rather than sending them to a feed yard.

      Some ranchers will turn to commercial feed that is made up of these and other ingredients like vitamins as supplements. These products have specially formulated macronutrient content — think protein and carbohydrates for energy and fiber — for optimal health.

      Some ranchers grass-feed their cattle for their entire lives. Some finish with grain diets. (Check out our handy breakdown of grass versus grain feeding and finishing.) Many of them turn to their fellow Kansas farmers to supply high-quality grains and grasses to help keep their cattle healthy.

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      how to buy beef - clover meadows beef grass fed beef st louis missouri

      Hi! We’re Matt & Jessica Hardecke. Our farm is located outside of St. Louis, Missouri, and we raise Missouri grass fed beef, as well as, grain finished beef (you choose the type of beef you’re interested in).

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