Today is National Ag Day, and this year’s theme is 365 sunrises and 7 billion mouths to feed. At our dairy we have about 100 Holstein cows to feed twice a day, 365 days a year. We also feed about 130 heifers, but that’s a story for another post. To get it all done, we typically get up in time to see the sunrise. This year’s theme is definitely something we’re familiar with.
I often hear people talk about cows as grass-fed or grain-fed, and it seems there is some confusion about what most cattle actually eat. Our cows, like many dairy cattle, eat something called TMR, which stands for Total Mixed Ration. Rather than eating all of the things they need separately, we mix everything together. This keeps the cows from sorting their feed, and picking out what they like best. Feeding TMR ensures that each cow gets everything she needs – it’s kind of like making them eat their vegetables. This video gives you the quick version of “mixing feed”, a task that someone at the farm does every day.
The video was taken in September, and our ration has changed some since then. Within a few months, we harvested milo and corn and chopped forage sorghum. Our cows’ ration is developed by a nutritionist who utilizes the feed ingredients that we have grown and designs a commercial feed or protein mix that includes the nutrients and components that our on-hand ingredients lack.
Our nutritionist tests each of our feed sources to ensure that it contains the nutrients it should. For example, our last load of alfalfa did not test as high as we’d hoped, so our protein mix had to be adjusted to balance out the ration. We also will add different forages (rye, triticale, sorghum, etc.) or grains (corn, milo) depending on our harvest. At the time of the video, ground corn was included in the protein mix because we did not have any dry corn in storage. As our feed sources change (in type or in nutrient content), our protein mix and ration are adjusted to accommodate that change.Below is our ration from late December (per cow, per day):
- 8 lbs alfalfa hay
- 8.3 lbs ground corn
- 11.8 lbs protein mix
- 25 lbs sorghum silage
- 45 lbs corn silage
In the chart, the hay and silage (greens) are forages and the other ingredients (golds) are grains. As you can see, grain makes up less than ¼ of the ration by weight, and by volume that percentage is even less (grains are more dense than forages). Our cows aren’t grass-fed, but as you can see, they also aren’t grain-fed. Instead, they’re fed exactly what they need to produce high quality milk.
So what does all of this feed mean for us? For the 7 billion hungry mouths? Each of our cows converts her 98 lbs of TMR into over 7 gallons of milk each day. Our hauler picks up that milk every other day and delivers it to a processing plant about 50 miles from our farm. From there, it’s pasteurized, packaged and put on the shelves of our local grocery stores. Complete with 9 essential nutrients, milk is also one of the most economical protein sources available, and it no doubt will play a major role in feeding a growing population.
We feed our cows what their bodies need so that they can produce what our bodies need, 365 days a year.