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 specialized dairy cattle nutritionist to develop a balanced diet for each animal on the farm. Together, they determine the ingredients in the recipe and then mix them into a total mixed ration (TMR). Every farm will feed a different TMR as every farm has access to different ingredients, budgets, and goals for their herd’s performance.
Our diets consist of a certain amount of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, and dairy cows are no different. 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. A TMR blends everything together so the cow can't pick out her favorite ingredients. This mixing process also ensures that every bite is nutritionally equivalent.
Cows are typically grouped based on their nutritional needs, allowing the farmer and nutritionist to ensure each cow consumes the optimum amount of nutrients to meet their specific needs, whether they are producing milk or not. Dry cows are late gestation cows that are on "vacation" from being milked and preparing to have a calf. They 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 lactating or being milked daily eat a high-energy, high-protein ration, like the type of meal a professional athlete would eat.
Like us, the healthier a cow eats, the better she will perform throughout the day and the more nutritious her milk will be. Dairy cows have access to feed throughout the day. On average a Holstein cow (the black and white spotted cows) will consume about 100 pounds of feed every day that they convert into energy and milk. Feed efficiency for dairy cows is measured by how well a cow converts the feed she consumes into energy to maintain healthy body function and milk. Farmers and nutritionists work diligently to maximize feed efficiency while respecting a farmer’s budgetary restrictions and meeting each animal’s nutritional needs.