Cows eat several feedstuff types including roughage, grains, oilseeds and byproducts. You have several options within each of these categories; where you live also factors into your choices due to climate and growing season variations. In general, cows should get most of their nutritional needs met through high-quality forage for their roughage. This includes good pasture grass, hay and legumes such as alfalfa.
If you are raising beef cattle to sell at market, or dairy cows for milk, feeding a grain supplement will fatten up the beef cow and increase milk production in the dairy cow. You can make your own feed into a total mixed ration that meets all of your cow's nutritional requirements, or you can buy commercially prepared grains or pellets. This ration has to include any vitamin and mineral supplements advisable for your cow's purpose and your location. A typical cow will eat more than 100 pounds of total feedstuffs per day, and drink about a bathtub full of water -- as much as 50 gallons.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture runs a program that makes agents available to provide rural guidance, including feeding animals. Your county's agent can advise you on how to mix a balanced total mixed ration based on local available feedstuffs.
Your costs and labor are cut considerably if you have access to high-quality pasture grasses for grazing, particularly if it grows year-round, you periodically can rotate your cows to different pastures or you have an irrigation system. A mix of grasses and legumes, such as alfalfa, is ideal, and together may meet your cow's protein requirements.
Test your soil for mineral content to determine if you need to provide your cow with a mineral supplement.
During the winter months or other situations where pasture grass is limited, such as a drought, you will need to feed your cow hay. You can purchase it at a livestock feed store, a local farmer or you can grow it yourself if you have the land and equipment. Hay is grass that is grown for the purposes of cutting and baling. Hay farmers apply fertilizer and weed killer to assure quality. Once it is cut, dried and baled, it loses some of its nutritional value but is still a vital component of your cow's diet.
You can grow grass for hay on your land and hire someone with cutting and baling equipment to harvest it for you. A common practice is to pay these equipment operators per bale, based on the number of bales they produce.
When a crop mix of grain such as corn, grasses, legumes and sometimes other plant byproducts is fermented in moist conditions and fed to cows, it's called silage. It is more economical than traditional grass hay, and lower quality grasses such as sorghum are often used. Some cattle owners keep silage on hand in case of weather issues; for example, excessive rainfall can prevent hay fields from drying out to be cut and baled, or drought will limit that year's hay yield. The silage ingredients ferment in a silo that is kept above or below ground. Once it is opened, however, it the silage is exposed to oxygen and can spoil quickly.
Byproducts Your Cow Will Eat
It's amazing what your cow will eat. You have several byproducts to choose from that are fine to feed your cow or to mix into his total mixed ration. Many of these simply act as fillers to reduce the amount of hay and more expensive or scarce forage types, but many are also good fiber sources to encourage healthy digestion. Beet pulp is the byproduct of sugar beet processing done to extract sugar. In addition to being a filler, it is also a good energy source.
Your geographic location may determine what byproducts are readily available to you, but some of the more common ones include soybean meal and hulls, cottonseeds, corn gluten feed, wheat middlings, citrus and tomato pulp, brewers grains and even potato peels.
Oilseeds, such as soybeans and canola meal, are also important to add to your cow's diet for protein, energy and fiber.
Common Grains for Cows
Farmers who depend on cattle for their livelihood frequently grow grain crops to meet additional cattle food requirements. These grains, such as corn, sorghum -- also known as milo -- oats, wheat and barley provide additional fiber and energy to cows who need it, such as cows to be sold for beef or dairy cows who need to produce a regular supply of milk. Your cow may not need grain at all, or you may need to supplement grain to replace forage during times of low forage availability -- during a drought or in the winter, for example. Sorghum, or milo, is less expensive but also more nutrient-deficient than many other grains. Mixing sorghum with a higher-quality grain is one way to economically stretch your cattle feed.
If your cow is not used to grain, introduce it gradually into his diet.
Vitamins and Minerals
Quality forage typically provides most cows with adequate vitamins and minerals, as long as your soil is healthy. Test your soil for mineral content to see if you need to add a supplement, because soil mineral content will vary by geographical region. Both beef and dairy cattle need the same minerals but the quantities may be different. For example, a cow raised for beef may need additional salt, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, copper or selenium.
A cow with access to good hay or pasture grass probably won't need any vitamin A supplementation, but adding some alfalfa will provide him with more. Since cows are typically outdoors, most receive adequate vitamin D -- but if your cow is kept in a barn or is turned out on pasture only at night, ask your veterinarian about a vitamin D supplement.
Vitamins C, K and B are typically only required for young calves.