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What do Farmers Feed their Cows?

Did you know a cow has four chambers in their stomach? Ruminant animals are able to consume a simple plant like grass and turn it into delicious meat and milk.

May is #NationalBeefMonth and to celebrate, I thought I would chat about what we feed our cows. There are so many misconceptions in agriculture and my hope is that you trust our Iowa farmers. I have met so many farmers through my position with Ag in the Classroom and many go above and beyond to care for their livestock.


So just what do farmers feed their cows? Well it depends on their stage of development. On our farm, we primarily feed our cows pasture grass and hay (rye grass and alfalfa). But we also feed our cows mineral and salt blocks. This helps them to consume the additional nutrients required to help keep them healthy in the summer when the grass begins to slow down. We are also contemplating adding in protein blocks to their diet next winter. Iowa winters can be hard on cows and a little extra protein will give them the boost they need to prepare their body for calving season.

All bovine animals are grass fed, ruminants must consume some sort of roughage... but some farmers may choose to only feed their livestock grass/hay while others may add grain to their diet as well. We rotate our cows between paddocks. A paddock is a fenced in pasture, it is best to let the cows graze in small area at a time. This encourages them to consume in uniformity and not just trample it. Ideally, we transition the herd to the new paddock when the grass is grazed about 50% from where is began. This will allow the blade to have enough surface area to photosynthesis and grow back before the cows re-enter the pasture.


My uncle crop rotates the fields next to us every other year. When corn stalks are available, we will let the cows out for a couple weeks to graze the corn left behind from the combine. They LOVE it! This is a great way to be sustainable!

We wean our calves around Halloween and to ease the transition from milk to hay/feed, we provide them a supplemental creep feed. We use a feeder that has bars for only the calves to come in and eat.

Creep feeds can vary in ingredients but usually it is a combo of cracked corn, rolled oats, alfalfa, rolled barley, soybean meal, soybean hulls, molasses, and minerals. The high energy and protein ingredients give the calves and extra boost. Especially as we enter into fall and the weather begins to cool.

Calves headed to a feed yard will be fed a ration of corn, hay, silage, haylage, and distiller grains (left over grains from the ethanol process). Depending on where you live, farmers may feed cotton seeds, hulls, etc.


Many steers or market heifers are implanted. What does this mean? We do give our market calves a small dose of hormones but the dose is to replace the hormones lost when we banded the bull into a steer. We choose to make the bulls into steers due to less fighting among the calves and for more tender meat. According to the Oklahoma State University Extension, "beef from implanted cattle have 2.5 ng of estrogen while beef from non-implanted cattle have 1.8 ng. These numbers are small compared to eggs that naturally have 3,968 ng."


We never feed antibiotics for growth but if there is a sickness going through the herd, instead of treating each individual calf, the farmer may get a prescription from the vet to feed an antibiotic for a short period of time. If fed an antibiotic, there is a withdrawal period the farmer must adhere by before selling the market animal.


Thank you for reading! Let me know if you have any questions!


***Dean loves to "feed" the cows with corn cobs haha.

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