Most people think that cows eat only grass. And while this is true to a degree, anyone who has worked with cattle for any length of time knows that they have a varied if still strictly plant-based diet.
But, cows are also ruminant animals, animals which are somewhat notorious for their highly sensitive digestive system.
Eating the wrong thing, or even too much of the right things too quickly, can cause serious issues which may even be life-threatening. Understanding this is imperative to select the right things for a cow’s diet.
Let’s look at alfalfa for instance. Can cows eat alfalfa?
Yes, cows can eat alfalfa hay or forage, and it provides lots of protein, calcium, potassium, iron and zinc for cows. However, cows should not be permitted to eat leafy alfalfa or wet alfalfa without safeguards against bloating administered.
Some cattle farmers today remain afraid of alfalfa since it’s somewhat notorious for causing bloat in cows, and particularly in beef cattle.
These fears are not overblown per se, but they are easy to manage with just a little bit of preparation.
I’ll tell you everything else you need to know about making alfalfa a part of your herd’s diet below…
Alfalfa Nutritional Profile
Looking at alfalfa hay, we see that it is tremendously nutritious for cows. It has one of the very highest feed values among different types of forage, and is a universally excellent source of protein.
But it is also a great source of energy, and has significantly higher TDN (total digestible nutrients) compared to corn.
Looking at the vitamin content of alfalfa hay we see that it contains a good amount of vitamin A precursors which tend to be deficient in most cows and beef cows in particular.
It’s also a particularly good source of niacin and riboflavin, vitamin E, and certain varieties are dependable sources of vitamin K and vitamin D. The mineral content is similarly impressive, even more impressive than the vitamins!
Feeding adequate amounts of alfalfa hay will provide most cattle with all of their recommended daily minerals in the form of potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese and zinc. The level of phosphorus present in alfalfa is not quite as high, but still meaningful.
As always, you cannot depend on these guidelines if you want to serve alfalfa hay to your cattle, and testing must be done to verify all nutrients before you formulate a feed plan.
What Benefits Does Alfalfa Have for Cows?
Alfalfa hay has lots of benefits for cattle, especially in the form of high protein which can help cows put on weight cleanly as they grow and also give them plenty of energy needed to fight off disease, heal from injury and thrive.
The vitamins and minerals present in alfalfa, including hay, play all sorts of vital roles in a cow’s biology, but perhaps none are more important than supporting lactation and improving energy levels in postpartum cows.
Additionally, alfalfa can improve skeletal growth, connective tissues, nervous system functioning, and more.
Alfalfa has also shown to be a significant contributor in resistance to white muscle disease, something that particularly scourges calves as it is caused by the combined lack of certain vitamins and minerals, namely selenium and vitamin E, that alfalfa is fairly rich in.
All in all, quite a few benefits, and ones that you would be wise to capitalize on. You just need to be sure that you minimize the possibility of bad outcomes. More on that in a minute.
Is it Okay for Cows to Eat Alfalfa Hay?
Yes, it is okay for cows to eat alfalfa hay. In fact, alfalfa is a common feed for dairy and beef cattle because it is so nutrient-rich.
However, there are some potential risks associated with feeding alfalfa. One concern is that it can cause bloating in cattle, which can be fatal if left untreated.
Additionally, alfalfa may contain high levels of nitrates which can be toxic to cattle if ingested in large amounts. It’s important to properly harvest and store alfalfa hay to reduce the risk of nitrate poisoning.
Is it Okay for Cows to Eat Alfalfa Forage?
Yes, though there are some significant hazards to know about. It is generally safe for cows to forage on growing alfalfa, but leafy alfalfa can be high in protein and other nutrients that may cause digestive upset in cattle if they consume too much too quickly.
Additionally, if the cows eat too much of the alfalfa, leafy alfalfa, or wet alfalfa they may develop bloat, which can be fatal if not treated promptly.
Therefore, it is important to properly manage cow access to the alfalfa by providing a series of paddocks in pasture so that their intake can be better regulated.
Using a series of paddocks also allows for better control of rotational grazing patterns so that the cows have access to the alfalfa during appropriate growth stages.
It’s also important to be aware of any potential hazards in the alfalfa pasture, such as poisonous plants or chemical contaminants.
Any suspected hazards should be removed from the grazing area, or cows should be removed from the area until the problem is resolved.
Proper management of cow intake and pasture grazing patterns can help minimize these risks and ensure the wellbeing and safety of the animals.
How About Calves? Can Calves Have Alfalfa, Too?
Yes, they can. Calves can also have alfalfa hay, but should generally not eat alfalfa hay alone.
Young calves should be slowly introduced to alfalfa hay, starting with small amounts and increasing gradually over time and eventually feeding them a mix of alfalfa and corn.
It is important to monitor the amount of alfalfa being consumed by the calf and adjust as necessary.
However, alfalfa hay can provide many benefits for calves including improved digestive health, muscle development, and increased immunity when fed properly.
How Often Can Alfalfa Be Fed to Cows?
The amount of alfalfa that cows can have depends on several factors such as their age, weight, and nutritional needs.
As a general guideline, cows should eat between 1.5% to 2.5% of their body weight in dry matter each day. This means that a 1,200-pound cow should eat between 18-30 pounds of dry matter each day.
In terms of frequency, cows should be fed multiple times a day to allow for proper digestion and nutrient absorption. This can be done through a combination of grazing and hay feeding, or multiple rounds of hay.
Also, do keep in mind that when feeding alfalfa, it’s important to verify the protein content and quality through testing. Some cows may need more protein than others, such as lactating cows or growing heifers.
How Should You Give Alfalfa to Your Cows?
You two best bets are as either hay or as part of a complete feed, such as a ration balancer. Forage is also an option, though one with more variables that make it potentially perilous.
When it comes to alfalfa hay, the type and quality will make a difference in how much your cows can have.
Generally, hay should be harvested at the right stage to ensure that it is of the highest quality possible.
Additionally, hay should be stored in a dry and well-ventilated area with as little exposure to sunlight as possible.
Only Give Alfalfa to Your Cows if It’s Fresh and Unspoiled
One major risk factor associated with alfalfa hay is spoilage. This can occur if the hay has been stored for too long or exposed to moisture or sunlight.
Spoiled hay can contain mold, fungi, and other toxins that may be harmful to your cows when ingested.
It is important to inspect alfalfa hay before feeding it to your cattle and discard any spoiled bales. If you are unsure, it is best to err on the side of caution and toss out anything that looks off.
These contaminants can easily make your cows sick, or in some cases even kill them before it is possible to intervene!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.