Supplement feeding your house cow

by Elizabeth Beavis
I wish we had luscious green grass for our cow year round, but like most places, we only have green grass for short periods.  In winter, we don't get much rain at all, and our sub-tropical grass species die off with the cooler weather.  This is when we need to feed our house cow extra hay and grain to supplement the meager offerings in our pasture.  Understanding how much to feed is important, as you don't want a fat (or a skinny) house cow.

Fortunately there is some great information available.  I found the book  Keeping a Family Cow: The Complete Guide for Home-Scale, Holistic Dairy Producers (affiliate link), by Joann S. Grohman to be particularly helpful.  I first reviewed Keeping a Family Cow back here, when I borrowed it from the Brisbane library.  I've since bought a copy because I hadn't been able to read it all in detail the first time.  Now I can go through each chapter and take in all the information.  One chapter that I really wanted to come back to was the one about feeding your cow.  Its quite a long and complicated chapter, so I've summarised the key points below.

eight acres: supplement feeding (hay or grain) for a house cow and other cattle
Feeding hay in winter
  • The first thing to understand is that a cow is a ruminent, meaning that she has four stomachs.  This allows her to digest the fibre (cellulose) in grass (all herbivores have some kind of digestive adaptation, as this article explains).  In the cow, the rumen (first stomach) is full of bacteria that live on the cellulose and other nutrients.  The bacteria produce amino acids (protein), which passes through to the rest of the gut for absorption much the same as a human stomach. 
  • The bacteria also produce acetic acid (vinegar) which is absorbed by the rumen and directly converted to milk - therefore grass and hay make milk.
  • This makes the cow uniquely efficient - she (along with an army of microbes) can convert grass, of no nutritional value to humans, into highly nutritious milk.
  • Dairy cows have been bred to give more milk than their calf needs, they will continue to produce milk "off their back" - meaning that they will lose fat and muscle to milk production if they are not getting enough energy in their feed.  If we are not providing enough food, a lactating cow could die from malnutrition.  However, there is no need to feed as much as a commercial dairy farm if you don't need the excess milk. you can find a balance where your cow's body condition is maintained at a healthy range and you are getting enough milk for the family, but not maximum production (or at maximum cost).
  • If you have enough good quality grass and hay throughout the year, you don't have to feed grain to your cow, however, most locations and most cows will need some grain at some time to boost the energy available to the cow and maintain body condition.
  • Given the choice, its better to spend your money on good hay and a little grain rather than relying on grain alone.  The reason for this is that the two feeds require different microbes in the gut, which thrive at different pH levels.  Feeding too much grain will lower gut pH, which will then inhibit the bacteria that digest grass and hay to create milk production.  Your cow will get fat and won't produce as much milk.
our grass in February
  • Good hay is green on the inside of the bale, it has leaves (not all stalk) and doesn't shatter and fall apart.  It shouldn't be dusty or mouldy.  It needs to be stored out of the rain and out of the sun and it can last for years in dry conditions.  If you find a good hay farmer, keep going back to buy as much as possible, many farmers do not make good hay as they don't understand cow nutrition (they will leave it too long to cut when they will get MORE bales, but past the mature stage of the grass, so not as high quality feed).  The same goes for dead dried grass in the pasture - sure it provides bulk, but not enough energy or protein for the cow.
    • Cows will eat LESS poor quality hay because it fills up her rumen and takes longer to digest.  A cow will eat until her rumen is full and later rechew the food (this is when she is chewing her cud, you know how they just stand or lie around chewing and staring into space?).  

  • Do not feed grain on an empty stomach (better yet, do not let your cow's stomach get empty at all!  If she can maintain a steady population of microbes, her digestion will be better overall).  Grain is small and will pass right through the rumen without other bulk of hay or grass to hold it there long enough to be digested by microbes.  If you see grain in your cow's manure, you know its not being digested (the chickens love scratching through cow manure to find the grain!).
  • You can feed any kind of grain, we buy a milled mixture from a local grain wholesaler, it doesn't contain any additives.  Milled grain is digested better as its got more surface area than whole grain, however the oils will oxidise and it won't last as long.  We use diatomeceous earth to keep the bugs out, and store the mill grain in sealed drums.  Sprouted grains in another good idea for maximising nutrition from grain - I haven't tried that for the cows yet.  (I found some examples of growing fodder for chickens which could be scaled up - how to grow wheat grass for chickens and why you should grow fodder and how to do it).
  • Feed hay using feeders to keep it off the ground - we have round bale feeders and small bale feeders.  Cows will pick through and eat what they like.  Expect that 10-30% of the hay will end up on the ground, but don't consider that as waste, its organic matter for your pasture (and mulch for your garden).
  • If you are lucky enough to have grass available year round, note that grass of a particularly length is best for cow digestion - around the length the a cow would naturally bite off a blade of grass.  Pasture can be managed by rotational grazing to use the grass at the optimal length.  This also means that chaff (hay that is chopped into small pieces) is not ideal.
The main thing I got from all of that is that we should be buying the best hay we can find and adding a bit of grain to our cows' diet when we see them start to lose body condition.  As much as I would love to have everything "grass fed", we can't provide that at the moment, so we have to make sure our cows get what they need from their feed.

What do you think?  Do you feed hay or grain?  Is your grass green and luscious?  

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