Feeding Cows on a Micro Dairy

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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There are two ways to manage your cow-feed regimen — for maximum milk production or to ensure that your cows live a long, happy and healthy life. Thus, the cow management goals for a micro dairy can be very different from the goals on a large commercial dairy. Large operations usually feed their cows a diet designed to fully utilize the cow’s genetic capacity to produce milk.

This strategy is good if your goal is more cheap milk, but it is hard on the cows and keeps them on the verge of metabolic collapse. This is why the average lifespan of a cow on a commercial dairy farm is only four and a half years.

As you might know by now, I don’t feed my cows to maximize their milk production.  Rather, my primary goal is to keep my animals healthy, clean and in good condition on the theory that healthy cows produce a healthy amount of milk.  Does this make sense from a business perspective?  It does for me. A healthy cow can easily live to the ripe, old age of 15.  In fact, the oldest cow I milked was 17 years old before I retired her.  I was able to enjoy a return on my investment in raising her for 12 ½ years longer than the average commercial dairy cow.

I am often asked if I feed my cows grain. Yes, I do. I feed them grain with their hay and baleage. Again, this is because my goal is to maximize the cow’s health and lifespan, not her milk production. I carefully considered feeding a grain-free diet but decided against it.  You see, modern dairy cows have been bred for generations to produce way more milk than they would for their calves in a “state of nature”. They are not “natural” critters. As a result, most lactating cows will burn their body fat and tissue to make milk if their feed is not supplemented with some sort of concentrated feed or grain that helps them maintain their body condition.  Again, it is a case of your goals.  My goals are healthy cows and moderation in all things.  To keep my cows healthy while they are “in milk” I feed them a high energy, high fat and low-in-protein mix of corn meal top dressed with a 14% protein grain. Each cow gets about eight pounds per day in addition to all the hay she can eat.

During the winter when my cows spend more time in the barn and the pasture is covered by snow, I feed a combination of dry, second-cut hay, also called rowen, and ensiled wrapped- round second-cut bales in addition to the grain.  I store the small square bales of rowen in the hayloft, or mow, of my barn. I store the wrapped bales outside and  keep them elevated off the ground on Hemlock two-by-six planks and covered with a layer of plastic, in addition to the wrap, to keep them dry and mold free.  When it is time to feed them, I move the bales to a small shed adjacent to my barn where I put them on a pallet and unwrap them.  I unroll the bales by hand and bring the hay to the cows as needed.  Feeding cows dry hay is very important for the health of their rumens, one of their five stomachs where most of the digesting takes place.  I try to make sure my cows have several pounds of dry hay or rowen per day.

In addition, cows that are milking need salt and some mineral supplements with their feed. This is a topic for conversation with your veterinarian or your dairy nutritionist.  In general,  having a salt-mineral block available for the cows to lick daily is a good idea.  Be sure to keep your eyes on the cows.  Some mineral deficiencies can make it difficult for the cows to come into heat, get pregnant or produce milk.. Again, talk to your vet if you have any concerns about your cows’ diets or health.

Probably the most important discovery dairy farmers made about feeding cows in the 20th century is that a healthy cow is either eating, sleeping or chewing her cuds. Cows need feed in front of them all the time when they are confined in a barn. You need to recreate the atmosphere of being outside on pasture. And the feed needs to be kept fresh.  I feed my cows’ hay and grain morning and night when they are milking and I try to check on them at noon to make sure they have enough fresh hay.

One of the most important discoveries I have made regarding feeding cows in a micro dairy tie barn is the need for manger backstops.  Manger backstops were common up until a few decades ago when all feeding was done by hand (as you can see in the old barn design attached).  But, they fell out of fashion when farmers started to use mechanized feed carts to put feed in mangers.  The backstops were in the way so they flattened out the mangers.  We built an experimental backstop out of plywood in our barn a few years ago and it works great.  It keeps the feed in front of the cows at all times and helps to stop the cows from stealing feed from their neighbor.  Also, my cows are less inclined to get down on their knees and stretch to reach feed with a backstop in place.  As a result, they are less likely to poop on their stall treads, so everything stays cleaner.

Finally I try to feed my cows a consistent diet.  If I make changes I make them slowly.  Why? Cows love routine.  They are very happy being fed the same diet every day as long as it is a healthy diet and they are fed enough.  They don’t need or want variation.  As usual, I try to keep everything as simple as possible.  When I find something that works I stick with it. Pasture with a bit of grain is ideal.  When the pastures are covered with snow, dry hay and a bit of grain is the next best feed.

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