The foods we eat contribute to our overall health, and a balanced diet gives us more of the nutrients we need. This principle also applies to cows. So, what do cows eat? To be healthy and provide humans with quality meat or milk, cows must eat up to 100 pounds of feed per day, consisting mainly of hay (dried grass or alfalfa), pastures grasses, silage (fermented grasses, alfalfa, or corn), and byproduct feeds (soybean meal, brewers grains, or corn gluten feed).

This feed is called a total mixed ration (TMR) and is often developed by trained nutritionists. Besides, scientists have been studying the subject for a long time in order to refine dietary standards for healthy cows. Let’s find out in more detail what is on the menu of North American cows and what distinguishes the diet of dairy cows from beef cattle!hoof print divider

What Are the Differences Between Beef Cattle and Dairy Cows?

tarenthaise cows
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Beef cows are cattle raised for meat production, as opposed to dairy cows, which are used for milk production. They come from the same species, but they are different breeds with particular physical characteristics and needs.

A beef cow has several morphological characteristics that distinguish it from a dairy cow. A cow raised for meat production is more robust, muscular, and has more fat throughout its body.

As for the dairy cow, she is leaner, and her bone structure is more visible. She seems more “feminine” than the beef cow. She also has an imposing udder, used for the production of milk for her calf.

Due to their different body composition and function, their nutritional needs differ. Like most living things, their diet is made up of six basic essential nutrients: water, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Many factors influence the type of diet given, including the digestive system, environment, age, animal sex, size, body condition, weight, breed, genetics, and purpose for which they are used.

What Do Dairy Cows Eat?

Cow on farm
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A dairy cow has high energetic needs because she burns a lot of calories to produce milk. So, she can eat up to 100 pounds of food a day and drink up to 30 to 50 gallons of water, which is the equivalent of a bathtub filled to the brim!

For example, in the United States and Canada, the most common feed fed to dairy cows is grass, in the form of hay or silage. Cows will also obtain essential nutrients from crops such as corn, barley, clover, alfalfa hay, oats, and soybeans.

Farmers and dairy producers can also give them a total mixed ration, which combines dry hay, silage, grains, minerals, and often other by-product foods, such as soybean meal, corn gluten feed, cotton seeds, beet pulp, etc. This ration is usually created by a trained dairy nutritionist who optimizes nutrition for cow health and milk production. This ration changes with the cow’s lactation stage, as the animal’s nutritional needs change depending on her milk production and stage of gestation. For example, during the lactation period, the cow must consume much more food to maintain its basic physiological needs and produce enough milk.

When the cow is dry, she builds up excess body reserves for the next lactation period, which occurs after she gives birth to a new calf. In fact, cows must calve every year to continue producing milk.

In short, the nutritional needs of dairy cows vary depending on the lactation, dry-off, and gestation periods. Due to these high dietary requirements, dairy nutritionists spend a lot of time balancing their daily rations.

What Do Beef Cattle Eat?

Holstein cow
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Beef cattle herds can be made up of female cattle, which form the base of the herd and produce calves each year for human consumption. Some calves can be raised to be kept on the farm, and others are sold at a younger age in a feedlot.

  • Milk-fed calves are primarily fed cow’s milk until they reach around 550 pounds. This feed gives the meat a pale color, a whiter color when cooked, and a smooth taste.
  • Grain-fed calves are typically fed corn until they reach around 730 pounds. Grain-fed veal gives tender meat with a delicate taste but darker in color than that of milk-fed veal.

The growth of veal calves depends on their genetics, the milk production of their mother, the quality of available fodder, and their environment. When they reach a weight of 600 to 800 pounds, the calves are sold for further growth in feedlots. The young oxen are thus fattened to weigh between 1,300 and 1,600 pounds, which is the ideal weight to produce the various cuts of meat available on the market.

Beef cattle do not necessarily have a defined level of feed consumption; however, they require food levels high enough to meet their nutrient requirements. Cows raised for human consumption can be fed a high-energy total mixed ration (like a dairy cow but with different levels of nutrients), designed for rapid growth and optimal meat musculature. They must also eat good quality forage, such as hay and grass, to ensure optimal nutrition. Besides, cows that produce calves intended for human consumption have nutritional requirements which vary according to their stage of lactation and gestation. In this respect, they are similar to dairy cows.

In short, beef and dairy cattle require the same quality of nutrients, but the required amount of these nutrients differs for each species and their function.

How Do Cows Turn Plants Into Milk or Meat?

dairy cow
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Cows are ruminants, which means they have a peculiarity compared to other herbivores such as horses or rabbits: they have four compartments in their stomachs and can bring food back from the stomach to the mouth to chew it again. This is called rumination, and the food that the ruminant brings back to its mouth is called the cud. Thus, the digestive system of ruminants allows them to digest the cellulose contained in the grass, which humans are not capable of.

As a result, a cow transforms food that cannot be used by humans (grass) into foods of high added value (meat and milk).

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Final Thoughts

Cows are ruminants with the extraordinary ability to transform cellulose in plants into milk or meat. But to accomplish this process, cows need adequate feed, which consists mainly of grass, hay, silage, and byproduct feeds. Dairy cows and beef cattle have different nutritional needs, but the two species require the same essential nutrients but in different amounts.

Featured Image Credit:  arnolgs, Pixabay