A cow’s diet a crucial factor in their health and productivity, whether you are raising cows for meat or for milk.
And cows are herbivores, which means they primarily pretty much solely on plants, and that means that feeding them the right plants, in the right amounts, is going to be essential if you want them to thrive.
But what else do cows eat exactly? Grass, of course. And most know they eat plenty of hay also. You should know that cows can consume various other foods and sometimes they can be quite picky eaters.
In this article, I’ll tell you all about some of the foods that cows can eat and how they benefit from them.
What Should Be in a Cow’s Diet?
A cow’s diet should consist of a variety of plant-based foods that provide essential nutrients and minerals.
Roughage, such as hay and silage, should make up the bulk of a cow’s diet, providing fiber for digestion and energy for normal bodily functions.
Processed feeds, such as grains and protein sources, can supplement the roughage and provide additional protein, energy, and vitamins.
A cow’s diet should also include mineral supplements to ensure they are getting necessary minerals like sodium and calcium. In addition, cows require access to clean, fresh water at all times.
How Do Beef and Dairy Cows’ Diets Differ?
Beef and dairy cows’ diets differ in a few key ways. Beef cows are typically raised for meat and have a diet that is focused on putting on weight quickly.
Their diet often consists of high-energy feeds such as corn, soybeans, and barley, along with hay and grass.
Dairy cows, on the other hand, are raised for their milk production and have different nutritional requirements.
Their diet often includes more fiber-rich feeds such as alfalfa and grass hay, as well as some grains to provide energy.
Dairy cows also require additional minerals and vitamins to support milk production, including calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D.
What Do Cows Eat Naturally?
Cows naturally eat a variety of grasses, plants, and shrubs, as well as flowers and herbs. In the wild, cows would graze on grasslands and other natural areas to obtain the necessary foods supplying nutrients and minerals for their diet.
What Do Baby Calves Eat?
Baby calves primarily feed on their mother’s milk for the first several months of their life. Cow’s milk is high in protein, calcium, and other essential nutrients that are necessary for the growth and development of young calves.
As they grow older, they may also begin to consume small hay and grass to supplement their diet of milk until eventually they are eating all the same things, in the same quantities, as an adult cow.
What Kinds of Treats Can Cows Have?
Cows can have a variety of treats as long as they are fed in moderation and do not interfere with their regular diet.
Fruits such as apples, bananas, and watermelons are favorites of cows and can provide some additional vitamins and fiber.
Vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes are also popular treats for cows, as they are high in nutrients like beta-carotene and potassium.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, some farmers may also provide cows with supplemental treats like molasses or grain mixes.
However, it is important to be cautious when giving cows treats, as overfeeding can lead to weight gain and other health problems.
Any sudden or excessive introduction of food can disrupt a cow’s rumen or cause bloat, potentially with fatal consequences!
28 Foods Cows Can Absolutely Eat
1. Pasture and Grass
Pasture and grass are the most natural sources of food for cows, and the one you have probably seen them munching on the most when out in a field.
Both pasture and grass are packed full of vital nutrients, including proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and fiber. And they help to keep cows healthy by providing them with a balanced diet.
But as you might have guessed, cows have to eat a ton of grass daily if they are going to get enough calories and nutrients from it, so ensuring they have access to lush, safe pasturage is necessary if you are going to free-range them.
Easier said than done, and it is a great reason why so many farmers rely on other, more convenient food to keep their herds fed: if cows accidentally ingest harmful or dangerous plants growing in the pasture, you are going to have problems.
Hay is the second most important food for cows, and one that provides them more energy than just grazing on pastures and grass alone.
It also helps to fill in any gaps that their diet might have, and it can be easily stored and transported.
Hay can come in various forms such as alfalfa hay, timothy hay, orchard grass hay and bermuda grass hay.
Each has its own nutritional value that helps to keep cows healthy, though alfalfa hay is often considered the best as it is packed with calcium and protein, though it must be fed cautiously since it can lead to bloat and other digestive issues for cows.
Silage is a nutritious and easily digestible feed for cows that farmers often rely on to keep their cattle healthy and productive.
It is essentially fermented grass or other crops that have been stored in a silo or other airtight container.
The process of making silage involves chopping up the forage into small pieces, packing it tightly into a silo, and covering it with plastic or other airtight material to create an anaerobic environment.
One of the major benefits of silage for cows is that it helps to ensure a consistent and balanced diet.
By fermenting the forage, the nutrients in the feed become more readily available to the cows, which helps to increase their feed intake and promote healthy digestion.
Silage also tends to have higher energy content than fresh forage, which can be particularly beneficial for dairy cows that need to produce large amounts of milk.
In addition to the nutritional benefits, silage is also a convenient and cost-effective feed option for farmers.
It can be stored for months without spoiling, which means that farmers can stockpile large amounts of feed to see their cattle through the winter months.
And because silage is made from crops that are often grown on the farm, it can be a more affordable option than purchasing other types of feed.
Grains are another excellent source of protein and other nutrients for cows, and they are often used as supplemental feed when they are not getting enough nutrients from pasture or hay.
Grains such as corn and barley provide cows with energy-dense food, but grains have some shortcomings and challenges associated with them.
For starters, grains can be very high in carbohydrates which can lead to digestive issues and gut health problems for cows.
Grains also tend to be bulkier and harder to digest than grass or hay, so cows who are fed a diet that is too rich in grains may not get enough roughage in their diet.
And finally, because of the tendency for cows to overeat grains, farmers must be careful to ensure that their animals are not getting too much of this type of feed.
But so long as grains are started, incorporated and fed to cows with an eye on the quantity and dietary balance they are a fine addition to a cow’s diet.
5. Processed Feed
Processed feed for cows is basically factory-produced food made just for them. Think dog- or cat food, same kind of thing.
Processed feed is typically made up of a mix of grains, protein sources, and other ingredients that are mixed together to create a nutritionally balanced diet for cows.
One of the main advantages of processed feed is that it allows farmers to have way more control over the nutrients that their cows are consuming.
By carefully selecting and sometimes mixing the feed(s), farmers can ensure that their cows are getting the appropriate levels of protein, vitamins, and other nutrients that they need to thrive, specially tailored to objectives and to the stage of growth and needs of their herd.
Another major logistical benefit of processed feed is that it tends to be far more consistent in terms of quality than other types of cow food, such as forage or hay.
Since it is also easy to portion by weight or by volume, precise calorie and nutritional targets are easy to meet, making your job a lot easier.
Processed feed can also be stored in large quantities and is less prone to spoilage than most fresh foods.
6-26. Fruits and Vegetables
Cows are herbivores as we’ve discussed, but that doesn’t mean they can eat just anything that is plant matter.
They can eat a lot, for sure, but not all things, including some very healthy things, are good for cows to eat.
On this subject, fruits and vegetables can provide cows with a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals, but they are not something they need too much of.
Whether it is due to nutritional imbalance or some other potential side effects, fruits and veggies are better off as treats and supplements to a cow’s usual diet of the things above. Fruit in particular tends to be way too sugary for regular consumption.
Nonetheless, there are all kinds of fruits and veggies that cows can eat, such as:
Apples: a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as fiber, apples are a popular treat for cows. Remove seeds first.
Bananas: a good source of potassium and fiber, bananas are a sweet treat that cows enjoy.
Beets: beets have lots of iron, and beets can help boost a cow’s immune system and improve their overall health.
Blueberries: high in antioxidants and fiber, blueberries are a tasty and nutritious treat for cows.
Broccoli: a great source of vitamins A and C, as well as fiber and calcium, broccoli can help improve cow health. High in oxalates, feed sparingly.
Cabbage: cabbage has tons of vitamin C and fiber, cabbage can help improve a cow’s digestion.
Carrots: rich in beta-carotene, which cows convert to vitamin A, carrots are a nutritious addition to a cow’s diet.
Field Corn: another good source of protein and energy, corn is a popular feed for cows.
Kale: very high in vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and iron, kale is another nutritious option for cows. High in oxalates, feed sparingly.
Parsley: not just a garnish, parsley is high in vitamins A and C, parsley can also act as a natural dewormer for cows.
Peas: have plenty of protein and fiber, peas are a great way to add variety to a cow’s diet.
Pumpkins: high in fiber and vitamin A, pumpkins can also serve as a natural dewormer for cows. Cut into chunks before serving.
Radishes: rich in fiber and vitamin C, radishes can also help improve a cow’s digestion.
Soybeans: soybeans are packed with protein and amino acids, soybeans are a common ingredient in commercial cow feed.
Spinach: is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as iron and other minerals, spinach can improve overall cow health. High in oxalates, feed sparingly.
Squash: another good source of vitamins A and C, as well as antioxidants, squash can help improve a cow’s overall health.
Sweet corn: a less common feed option for cows, sweet corn is high in energy and more palatable for some cows than field corn.
Sweet potatoes: a good source of all kinds of vitamins, as well as potassium and fiber, sweet potatoes are a favorite of some cows. Quite dense, so cut up into small pieces or lightly cook prior to serving.
Tomatoes: loaded with vitamins and lycopene, as well as antioxidants, tomatoes can help improve a cow’s immune system. Acidic and juicy, a few will do!
Turnips: high in calcium and vitamins, turnips can be a nutritious addition to a cow’s diet.
Watermelons: a great source of hydration during hot weather, watermelons also provide some energy and minerals to cows.
Milk is an important part of a cow’s diet, specifically for calves during the first several months of life.
Cow milk is rich in nutrients such as calcium, protein, and vitamins, which are essential for the development of young calves in much the same way that it is for people: Milk helps to support healthy bones, proper growth, and a strong immune system.
While milk is important for the growth and development of calves, adult cows typically do not need to consume milk as a regular part of their diet.
Adult cows have different nutritional needs, and their diet should focus on sources of fiber, protein, and other essential nutrients such as hay, silage, and processed feeds.
28. Salt Licks
Not so much a food, necessarily, but still an important part of a cow’s diet. Salt licks are not just blocks of salt, but rather a composite of mineral supplements that cattle can lick at will.
Salt licks provide cows with important minerals such as sodium, calcium, and magnesium that may be lacking in their regular feed.
Cows require a certain amount of salt in their diet to maintain their overall health and to regulate water absorption in their own bodies, and cows are often not able to obtain the necessary amount from their regular feed alone, especially when free-ranged.
Salt licks can help farmers ensure that cows are meeting their sodium requirements, particularly during hot weather or strenuous activity.
This is a limited and specialized item on a cow’s menu, but an important one.
Cows Eat Much More than Just Grass and Hay
To maintain health and productivity, cows require a balanced diet of different types of feed that provide a range of essential nutrients and minerals, far beyond what grass and hay alone can give them.
From silage and grains to fruits and vegetables, farmers must carefully balance the different types of feed to ensure their cows thrive.
Frequently Asked Questions
Cows generally eat throughout the day, and will graze for several hours at a time. Their digestive system generally requires a steady intake of food to keep up energy levels and to keep functioning properly.
Cows eat a significant amount of food each day, typically consuming up to 2 to 2 ½% of their body weight in food.
This means a cow weighing 1,000 pounds may eat up to 25 pounds of food per day. This varies depending on age, activity level, and other factors.
Several factors can cause cows to stop eating, including illness, stress, changes in their environment or housing, and changes in their diet.
Cows may also stop eating due to heat stress, transport stress, or social stress among herd members.
It can be difficult to tell specifically when cows finish eating, but there are some general indications.
One sign is that the cows will stop actively grazing and move away from the feeding area. When cows are no longer interested in eating, they may stand still or begin laying down to rest.
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.