Cows are ruminants and a staple of their diet is grass, which can take other forms, such as hay or silage. But when winter rolls around and pasture grass becomes scarce, hay becomes essential in the diet of these animals. The milk yield and the quality of meat products depend on the hay’s quantity and, above all, on its quality. But how much hay do cows need to eat to maintain milk or meat production?

It depends on several factors, such as the weight of the cow, the quality of the hay, and the stage of production of the animal (whether she is pregnant, dry, lactating, etc.). Thus, a 1,300-pound pregnant cow will consume more than a lighter cow, and the same principle applies to lactating cows.

There are a few rules of thumb to help estimate the daily feed intake of cows on a dry matter basis consuming different quality forages when pregnant or lactating:

  • When forage quality is low and cows are not lactating, they consume 1.8% and lactating cows about 2.0% of their weight on a dry matter basis.
  • When forage quality is average, non-lactating cows will consume about 2.0% to 2.1%, and lactating cows about 2.3% of their body weight per day on a dry matter basis of that forage.

To simplify it, we can say that on average, a cow will consume about 2% of her weight in hay per day. So, for example, a pregnant dry cow weighing 1,300 pounds will consume about 26 pounds of good quality hay per day to support and grow her calf.

hoof print divider What’s the Difference Between Intake on a Dry Matter and As-Fed Basis?

Lakenvelder cow and calf grazing
Image Credit: Elsemargriet, Pixabay

Feeding on a dry matter basis simply means that the forage does not contain moisture. But since it is impossible to “remove” all the moisture from the hay before feeding it to the cows, you have to do a little math to know the actual “as-fed” amount the cow will eat.

Take the same pregnant dry cow that weighs 1,300 pounds. She will consume about 2% of her weight in hay per day, which is 26 pounds. But given that those 26 pounds of hay is based on 100% dry matter and grass hay contains about 10% moisture, then hay actually only contains 90% dry matter. This means that cows will consume approximately 29 lbs. (26 lbs. / 0.90) per day on an “as-fed” basis.

On the other hand, when farmers project the feed inventory they need for the winter, they may estimate their cows’ feed requirements at 35-40 pounds of hay per day. Why this surplus? Simply because a certain amount of hay can be spoiled during storage, wasted, or refused during the feeding process.

Why Is It Important to Calculate Hay for Cattle?

Abondance cow
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Estimating the amount of forage that cows eat is important in order to anticipate their needs during the winter. The quality of the hay is also paramount, as this determines the amount of food consumed.

This is because higher quality forages contain higher concentrations of nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. This makes cows more likely to meet their nutritional needs, but they will also consume more hay.

This is explained as follows: better quality forage ferments faster in the rumen so that the cow digests it quickly. As a result, forage consumption increases.

Therefore, high-quality forage is essential for the producer and the cow, as this ultimately determines the quality of the meat or milk produced by the cow.

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Final Thoughts:

Hay is forage (grass and alfalfa) that has been cut, dried, and processed into bales. It is particularly popular with cows after winter comes, as fresh grass pastures are no longer accessible. Therefore, it is important for producers to estimate the amount of hay their cows eat per day to meet their nutritional needs during the winter. On average, a cow will consume about 2% of her weight in forage, but this estimate will vary depending on factors such as her stage of production and the quality of the hay.

Featured Image Credit: MabelAmber, Pixabay