July 10, 2017

What Do Cows and Cattle Eat?

The obvious answer to this seemingly mindless, extremely easy-to-answer question is...


In all it's various forms.

But, of course, that's really only partly right.

Sure cows and cattle eat grass because that's what they're built to eat. They are ruminant animals, meaning they have three fore-stomachs plus the true stomach that is structurally adapted to a diet of fibrous plant material.

Plus they have millions of microflora to help them break down that plant material into usable nutrients.

A quick Google search will give you several sites that tell you the three primary feeds that cattle eat:

- Hay
- Grain
- Silage

A fourth "feed" that cattle will "harvest" themselves is pasture forage (also called fodder).

There is also a fifth feed that takes on a minor precedent known as "by-product."

Now, the three four five primary feeds are largely of grasses or derived from grasses.

Hay is cut and sun-dried forage that is gathered up into bales (NOT "bails"). Plants used for hay are primarily perennial grasses that come up to be harvested year after year without any need to cultivate and re-seed (usually).

Grain is a collection of seeds from domesticated grasses such as corn, barley, and oats.

Silage is wet, wilted forage that is cut, then chopped up and stored in a wrapped bale, in a pit, pile, bunker, or silo and allowed to ferment for several weeks. Most silage is of domestic grasses like barley, corn, or oats; it can also be made up of grasses that could be used for hay.

By-products are waste material from processing grains or crop seeds into various products for human use or consumption, such as beer, biofuel, baked goods, or vegetable/cooking oil. While domestic grasses make up a large part of this production, other crops like sunflowers, canola, and soybeans are used. By-products may also include waste from supermarkets due to grading and aesthetic concerns. Waste vegetables, starches, and fruits make up a lot of this, and to some limited extent, be fed to cattle.

I purposefully did not include animal by-product as a part of the by-product list for cattle because such feeds are prohibited from being fed due to Mad Cow Disease concerns (also known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.)

Oh, but wait! I forgot to add two more items to what cattle are fed! I'll bet you didn't know that cattle also eat:

Making hay before the storm hits
- Greenfeed
- Straw

Greenfeed is treated just like hay, except that the forage component of that hay is not your typical perennial grasses as a "hay stand." Instead, this is usually made up of annual domestic grasses primarily of oats and/or barley that are cut green, dried in the sun, and baled up. Another type of greenfeed is "yellowfeed" which is a crop harvested for feed after being desiccated with a herbicide, usually glyphosate. Yellowfeed can also be a cereal crop  that has gone to maturity, and is cut and baled up for feed. (Farmers have been known to also bale up non-cereals like peas or canola to feed to cattle.)

Barley ready to be harvested for feed
Straw is what's left over and gathered up into bales after a cereal crop is harvested for its seed (grain).

What are Cows and Cattle Fed to Eat? 

What feeds are fed to cattle depends on how they are raised. Dairy cattle in confinement will be fed a variety of feeds in what's called a TMR (total mixed ration). It ensures that they get all their nutrients and types of feeds they should have for healthy rumen function and milk production. A TMR includes hay, silage, grain, and maybe some kind of by-product like soybean meal or canola meal.

I should really answer this in an other post on "How do Cows Eat" but what's funny about dairy cows being fed a TMR is that they're not stupid or dumb about carefully selecting out their "desert" first (the grains) and leaving the "vegetables" (the hay component) behind until they really have to eat it. That's why I used the words "they should have" because the human component behind the dairy-cow ration balancing expect the cows to eat everything in equal portions, when they really don't!

Beef cattle are primarily fed hay with some grain and/or silage. At least, those cattle or cows that are still raised traditionally (kept in pens during the winter, out on pasture in the summer). Cattle being finished in the feedlot are primarily on silage, with some hay and grain, then progressively fed more and more grain and silage (with a little hay) by the time they reach the end of their short lifespan prior to slaughter.

Here's where the waters get pretty cloudy. The aforementioned methods of feeding beef cattle have been practiced for many decades. But now, farmers and ranchers are taking winter feeding into more winter grazing, where hay is either being fed out in the field, or cereals are cut into swaths, but not gathered up into bales. Instead, electric fencing is used to get those cattle to eat those swaths instead.

Producers in more southern locations where winters are mild or non-existent can graze their cattle on pasture 365 days of the year. (Many cannot due to not understanding proper grazing practices of rest and rotation.)

I mention greenfeed and straw because beef cattle will be fed those feeds as well. The kicker with these is that the straw needs to be fed along with grain because a cow cannot handle an extremely high-fibre, poor protein feed source, and greenfeed needs to be fed along with a high-calcium/magnesium mineral, unless it is mixed with a hay that has lots of legumes in it (like alfalfa).

The other fun part of this question is that, continuing on with grazing, is that cattle can be grazed in annual crops that contain a variety of species that are primarily legumes, grasses, and broad-leafs (like kale, turnips, sunflowers, phacelia, flax, radish, etc.). A few producers are able to finish their cattle on this stuff, and get those cattle about as fat and sassy on that standing forage as those cattle being finished in the decades-traditional feedlot.

What do Cows Eat Other than Grass??

Legumes. Legumes make up a pretty hefty portion of a bovine's diet. Legumes are primarily found in hay, as well as pasture. Cattle will also readily eat other non-leguminous broad-leaves (or "forbs") if they find the plants particularly palatable (there's an alliteration for you!)

Did you know that grass makes up 95% of a bovine's diet? That means 5% of the diet is legumes, forbs, and some trees and shrubs, if they come across them.

Bees like legumes too!
Alsike Clover top, American Hedysarium bottom
There are quite a few species of legumes that cows will eat, including:

- Alfalfa
- Sainfoin
- Cicer Milkvetch
- Birdsfoot Trefoil
- Red Clover
- White Dutch Clover
- Kura Clover
- Alsike Clover
- Yellow/White Sweet Clover
- Hairy Vetch
- Persian Clover
- Soybeans
- Field Peas
- Beans
- Lentils
- Cow Peas
- Lespedeza
- Sunnhemp
- Faba Bean

Other non-legume forbs that cows will eat include:

- Dandelion
- Hawks-beard
- Turnips
- Radish
- Phacelia
- Flax
- Sunflower
- Kochia
- Carrot
- Squash
- Quinoa
- Plantain
- Spinach
- Chard
- Buckwheat

Cows Eat Grass on Pasture. Right?

Partly. Cows will also eat legumes, as mentioned already. A pasture that has a good legume component means that those cattle will get a lot of nutritional benefit from those plants.

Pasture for cattle isn't limited to the perennials that come up every year. Pasture also includes arable land that is typically used for cash crop production, but can and has been seeded so that it provides temporary pasture for livestock.

(This is why I strongly believe the land-use argument for not eating meat versus a 100% plant-based diet is a non-issue. That's another blog post some day, though.)

When cattle are pastured in any plant stand, they will select what tastes good to them. They are incredibly selective, much more than we think, using their tongues to both taste and grab what they want to eat.

If there are dandelions in a pasture, they will eat those with relish. Certain weeds will be eaten by cattle if they are trained to, such as Canada thistle. And when grazed in a large group where competition between animals is prevalent, they will also eat those weeds that normally, in a continuous grazing system, they would avoid (simply because they can).

So, Cows Eat More than Just Grass. Got It!!

Yes indeed. The take-away message here is that cattle will eat more than grass, not because they are forced to, but because they choose to, and can. 

In the end, they are herbivorous ruminant animals who will eat more than just grass for reasons including taste, and a craving for something lacking in their diet. Plant choices are also due to what they have learned from their mothers at a young age, or through trial and error. 
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