Think about the last time you had a smoothie. What were the necessary steps you took to make the finished product? You needed a recipe, a variety of ingredients and a blender. Feeding dairy cows is very similar. Farmers work with a nutritionist to develop a balanced diet for each cow on the farm, they determine the ingredients and then mix it up into a total mixed ration (TMR).

Corn harvest occurs in the fall and consists of utilizing the entire stalk of corn for a cows diet. Farmers harvest and store enough food to last until the following harvest.

Corn harvest occurs in the fall and consists of utilizing the entire stalk of corn for a cows diet. Farmers harvest and store enough food to last until the following harvest.

Our diets consist of a certain amount of protein, fats and carbohydrates, and dairy cows are no different. In order to meet their nutritional needs, cows eat a variety of ingredients including corn silage (the entire corn stalk chopped into pieces), haylage (grass chopped into fine pieces and fermented), grains and a variety of added fibers, vitamins minerals, by-products and supplements. Once the ration (or recipe) is determined, each ingredient is put into a TMR mixer wagon (operates like a blender) because just like some people, cows are picky eaters too, so a TMR blends everything together so the cow can’t pick out her favorite ingredients. Check out what these ingredients and many more look like up close.

Farmers mix all of the ingredients for the cows diet in a TMR wagon. This mixes all of the ingredients evenly to ensure a healthy, balanced ration.

Farmers mix all of the ingredients for the cows diet in a TMR wagon. This mixes all of the ingredients evenly to ensure a healthy, balanced ration.

Cows are typically grouped together based on their nutritional needs, which allows the farmer and nutritionist to ensure each cow is consuming the optimum amount of nutrients to satisfy her energy needs and produce the highest quality of milk.  Each group of cows has a ration designed to meet their specific needs. Dry cows, which are cows that are on “vacation” from being milked and preparing to have a calf, receive a ration that is high in fiber and lower in protein as they aren’t working as hard to produce milk.  Cows that are being milked everyday receive a high-energy, high protein ration, similar to the type of meal an athlete would eat. Want to see how a TMR mixer works, check out a dairy farmer in Kansas putting his ration together for the day.

Newborn calves are fed colostrum for the first few feedings and then receive at least two gallons of whole milk or milk replacer (similar to baby formula) each day via a large bottle. After they have been weaned, calves go onto a grain diet, and just like kids, they can be picky eaters so the grain is often coated in molasses to make it sweeter and more appetizing. Watch this video to see what calf grain looks like up close.

Dairy cows spend a lot of their day eating so it’s critical that farmers provide them with exactly what they need to produce high-quality, nutritious milk. Like us, the healthier a cow eats, the better she will perform throughout the day.  Cows consume about 100 pounds of feed and drink a bathtub full of water (25 to 50 gallons) each day! If you multiply that times 1,000 cows or even just 100 cows – that’s a lot of food and water served daily!  And the vast majority of that feed is grown on the farm.  So the next time you drive by a dairy farm, take a moment to think about all that a cow has to consume in order to allow you to consume delicious and nutritious dairy products.