Nourishing the Nourishers: What Do Dairy Cows Eat?

Rauscher_CowCare_FeedChk2-300x168Since it’s National Nutrition Month, it’s a good time to think about how what you are putting on your plate. However, good nutrition isn’t just important for humans–it’s also a huge part of keeping a dairy cow happy, sassy and healthy.

Feeding a dairy cow isn’t an accident–she doesn’t just wander around a farm, eating whatever’s laying around before sauntering into the milking parlor. Indiana has grazing and non-grazing dairies and both forms pay a great deal of attention of what is going in their cows’ mouths.

Grazing dairies seed and care for their pastures to make sure cows are getting good quality forage to eat, as well as rotating cows on and off pastures so the grass has time to rest and regrow after being munched on. Many grazing dairies will also supplement the cows’ diets during winter with hay or grain.


Non-grazing dairies often feed something called a “total mixed ration” or TMR. This ration could contain grassy forages, grains, and vitamin and mineral supplements. The TMR is a way to make sure cows eat all the tasty bits, like the silage and ground corn, while still getting the vitamins and minerals she needs.

It’s basically like a casserole for cows and works the same way feeding green bean casserole to kids does–it tastes good and is all mixed together so little Sally eats her greens without really realizing it.

So what’s actually in the TMR? The specific ingredients vary from farm to farm, just like the dinner menu would vary from family to family but common ingredients include:

  • Corn silage–a chopped up corn plant
  • Hayledge–chopped and fermented hay
  • Soybean meal–ground up soybeans
  • Corn–corn kernels, either whole, ground or fermented
  • Distiller’s grains–essentially leftover corn, a byproduct of ethanol production
  • Brewer’s grains–leftover malt grains from beer production
  • Wheatledge–chopped and fermented wheat
  • Cotton seed–the seed leftover once the cotton fibers have been removed, a byproduct of cotton textile production
  • Beet pulp–a byproduct of manufacturing sugar from sugar beets
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements

There’s an old saying that “an army marches on its stomach” and this holds true to dairy farming, too–a cow produces only as much milk as her diet allows. That’s why farmers spend so much time crafting, mixing, feeding, testing and re-imagining their cows’ diets.