Cows, like sheep and goats, are ruminants who have a complex digestive system that allows them to get most of their nutrients from roughage. Unlike monogastric animals who are unable to digest cellulose efficiently, ruminants use microbes in their rumen to break down cellulose and hemicellulose, the major components of roughage.

Rather than breaking down food by thoroughly chewing it before swallowing, food is broken down by being regurgitated, chewed, and then swallowed again- this process is often referred to as “chewing cud.” As grazing animals, cows are able to get the majority of their nutrients from grass and other green plant matter, either in the form of pasture or hay.

 In most settings, pasture is not available year-round, and therefore cow residents will eat a combination of pasture and grass hay.

Feeding Frequency/ Amount

You’ll need to come up with a system regarding how often you plan to feed hay based on the type of bales and feeders you are using, how much hay your residents go through on a regular basis, and your staff capacity (recognizing that you’ll have to adjust your plan if your cow residents start running low sooner than you expected). Depending on your resident population, feeding can be time consuming, so you may find it easier to feed out enough hay to last a few days at a time, but keep in mind that, in general, the more hay you feed at a time, the more will be wasted. Regardless of your system, make sure hay supplies are checked daily and added to as needed.

Apple Alert

As you’ll see below, apples can be a healthy treat for cows and many cows absolutely love them. However, if your pastures or other cow living spaces contain apple (or other fruit) trees or are near enough to apple trees that apples may fall into the pasture, it’s important to note that cows can bloat if they eat too many apples at once, especially if they are not used to them. You’ll want to keep a close eye out for large quantities of apples that have fallen and remove them so that they can be fed out in managed portions, and be aware that cows will often eat any apples on branches that are within their reach.

Commercial grain (such as sweet feed) should not be a regular part of a healthy, mature cow’s diet. Too much grain can result in obesity, digestive issues, and urinary issues. Remember, we are strictly talking about mature cows- feeding calf starter to calves is typically recommended for healthy rumen development and to ensure they get all the nutrients they need as they transition to solid foods. This is much different than regularly feeding grain to healthy, mature residents. If an individual is struggling to keep weight on, in addition to determining the cause, you can talk to your veterinarian about supplementation with grass hay pellets and/ or beet pulp, both of which are typically healthier and safer alternatives to large quantities of grain and, unlike alfalfa, are safe for both males and females.

Minerals And Supplements For Cows

Cow residents should have access to supplemental cow-formulated trace minerals, either in loose or block form, and though we call them “minerals” they typically contain some vitamins as well. There are a variety of pre-mixed formulations, but not all mineral supplements are created equal. Ideally, you should work with your veterinarian or a nutritionist to determine the best supplementation program for your residents, taking into considerations the specifics of your region and resident population, including their diet (forage samples can be submitted for analysis to determine nutrient content), any herd-wide health issues that could indicate a deficiency, and whether or not there are issues with deficiencies regionally. For example, many areas in the U.S. are considered selenium deficient, and cows in those areas may require additional forms of selenium supplementation such as selenium boluses.

Once you have identified the proper supplement (or perhaps supplements, if your veterinarian or nutritionist recommends different supplements for different times of the year), you’ll want to ensure your residents consume the correct amount. Refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding how much should be consumed per cow daily, and be sure to pay attention to consumption levels. Some formulas are more palatable than others. If you find that your residents are not eating the minerals, then it really doesn’t matter how good the supplement is, it clearly isn’t the best choice for your residents. Alternatively, though these mineral supplements are typically offered free-choice and cows will regulate how much they ingest, if you find residents are overeating minerals, you’ll need to look into limiting their access or finding a different supplement, though keep in mind that it is not uncommon for cows to consume more when first introduced to the mineral supplement.

Unless specifically recommended by your veterinarian or a nutritionist, you should not offer more than one mineral formulation at the same time. Any time you switch mineral formulations, be sure to watch closely to ensure proper consumption rates and be on the lookout for any potential signs of deficiencies.

A cow eats a pumpkin piece outside.

Mikey enjoys a pumpkin! Photo: Oliver and Friends Farm Sanctuary

Cows are natural grazers, so the majority of what they eat should take the form of grassy foods. Too many treats can result in bloat or GI upset (and in some cases, excessive weight gain). However, an occasional treat can go a long way in keeping cow residents happy (or motivated to cooperate during health treatments). To reduce the risk of choking, it’s best to cut treats into pieces. Healthy cow treats include:

Apples

Pears

Bananas- with or without the peel

Oranges- with or without peel

Watermelon- with or without rind

Carrots

Pumpkins (ensure that there is no part with ink or paint on them, and that it is not rotting!)

Alfalfa cubes (females only)

Oats

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