Celebrate National Nutrition Month for Cows!

March is National Nutrition Month – a time when we traditionally think about healthy eating for humans and recognize registered dietitian nutritionists – Happy RDN Day – March 12, 2014! But what about animals? The study of animal nutrition has evolved considerably, and when it comes to dairy cows, their diet has a significant impact on the animal’s health and the quality of her milk. Matt Leak is a dairy nutritionist in northern Utah who works with dairymen across the country to formulate a balanced nutrition ration for their dairy herds.

It’s not something we think about everyday – a cow needs a nutritionist!? But dairy cows have the important job of producing high quality milk on a daily basis. With every dairy herd he works with, Matt is looking to keep the cows as healthy as possible. He says, “Healthy cows, and well-fed cows not only produce more, and higher quality milk, but they have an easier time reproducing.” His goal is to help the dairymen he works with maintain the health of their herd while helping them produce the highest quality end-product possible.

So what does it take to develop a balanced diet for a cow?

Step 1: Determine what’s available

stored feed

Feed stored in these bags will remain fresh for over a year.

Matt works with many of his clients weekly to determine what the best mix of feedstuffs (in dairy-speak, a cow’s food is referred to as “feed or feedstuffs”) will be for that particular dairy. He starts by pulling samples of what the farmer has available – these can be stored crops that the farmer has grown and harvested or crops that the farmer has purchased. Matt sends the samples to a lab for analysis. He is looking for the total energy content of the feed as well as its specific protein & mineral content.

Step 2: Identify appropriate supplementals

Given what the farmer has on hand, Matt then considers what other feeds should be added to create a balanced ration for the cow. He considers things like…

  • What breed of cows does the farmer have (Holsteins, Jerseys or another breed)? Factoring in the breed will help Matt determine the type and amount of feed to give.
  • What ingredients are available at the best price? Given time of year and location, crop availability changes. He is looking for the right balance of protein, carbohydrate, and fat at a price that makes sense for the farmer. (Read more about what a cow eats)
  • What minerals should be added to help balance the ration?

Step 3: Determine the amount.

Once the feed types and balance has been established (the basic recipe), Matt has to determine portion size and proper ratios, and this can vary considerably based on the life stage of the cow. On any given dairy, a farmer will be tweaking the basic recipe and mixing up at least 5 or 6 different rations. (This is a bit like making 5-6 different meals for your family). Here is a general breakdown of what those different meals look like and who is eating them.

mixing feed

Farmers measure feedstuffs and mix each ration in a feed wagon

  • 1st time moms – these younger cows are still growing and learning, so the protein in their diet has to be a bit higher than veteran milk cows.
  • “Far Off Cows” refer to cows within 2 months of having a calf. These animals are are no longer being milked, and they are given a special diet, which is then tweaked just before she gives birth
  • “Close-Up Cows” are cows within 3 weeks of giving birth. At this point the cow’s diet is tweaked again to help boost her immune system and transition her to the type of food she will be getting when she rejoins the milk herd.
  • “Fresh Cows” have just given birth, their energy demands are extremely high, and they are also transitioning back to the milk herd
  • “High Cows” are peaking in milk production and their needs are sightly different than the others.
  • “Mid-Lactation” energy demands are not quite as high as “high cows” and these cows are transitioning to giving birth.
  • Young calves and heifers (young cows before they have calved) have different needs still…

Matt knows that he has the recipe just right when… 

  • The cows’ milk is full of great nutrients – protein & butterfat
  • The cows look and act healthy. (Dairy nutritionists routinely give cows a body condition score to assess weight and physical appearance, which depends heavily on a balanced diet).
  • The poop looks good. Just like humans, your gut will tell you when something isn’t quite right. Proper consistency and color help nutritionists identify a proper nutrient balance.

Dairy nutrition is a science and an art. Proper training, degree programs, certifications, and lots of field experience help professionals hone their ability to feed cows with care and precision. Matt works closely with dairymen, veterinarians, feed companies, and mineral distributers to ensure the best possible nutrition for the herds he serves.


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