You are what you eat is also true for dairy cows


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another installment in a series of columns highlighting the area’s agricultural community.

In my last column, I delved into the process of growing corn for dairy feed. This week I would like to explain what happens on the other end of the spectrum when these commodities are actually fed to our animals.

Dairy nutrition and feeding cows in general has evolved a lot over the past 50 years due to a combination of better research and technology that aids farmers in delivering a consistent and well formulated diet. Total Mixed Ration (TMR for short) is the most common type of feed now delivered to dairy cattle. TMR is a blend of all the different ingredients the animals need to meet all of their specific nutritional requirements.

Many factors come into play when developing a TMR for cattle which include but are not limited to the animal’s age, size, stage of lactation, reproductive state, and which feed ingredients are available on the farm.

Most modern dairies develop specific TMR rations with the help of a dairy nutritionist, who are typically either self-employed or work as part of a dairy feed commodity company. A nutritionist’s job is to gather all relevant data from a farm that can
play a role in impacting what nutritional needs the animals have such as: what types of feed a farm has in inventory, how much of those feeds are in inventory, how much milk the animals are producing, and how the animals are grouped with one another.

After this data has been compiled, the nutritionist will take this information and develop a feeding plan for the farm.

Developing a feeding plan for a dairy is a complicated task that has been revolutionized by computers. Nutritionists are able to utilize dairy simulator software that can predict the nutritional requirements for animals under specific parameters. Samples of each feed ingredients are taken from the farm and sent into a chemical analysis lab on a regular basis so a complete and comprehensive nutrient profile is understood. These lab samples break down each food ingredient into macro and micro nutrients so that the computer software can assess how that particular feed ingredient will nourish the animal.

Some of the major nutrients that must be balanced to meet the demands of the cattle are protein, starch, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Once these things are understood and evaluated, this information is then used to make the recipe or the TMR mixture that will be produced and delivered to the animals on farm.

There’s some truth to the saying “you are what you eat”, and for cattle this is certainly no exception. There are four main pillars for cattle nourishment:

Maintenance (breathing and organ function);

Growth (new tissue development);

Pregnancy; and


These pillars or paths for nourishment are in hierarchy of each other which means the animals body will always prioritize maintenance over growth, and so on. This is an important phenomenon to understand because the goal for commercial dairy farms is to produce milk for sale. The higher the plane of nutrition, the greater opportunity there is to produce more milk for the cattle. That being said, nutrition may be the most influential determinant in milk production, but it is not the only limiting factor.

Things such as general cow comfort and stress levels can also play an enormous role in limiting the overall productivity of a dairy cow.

Not only does the plane of nutrition impact the overall milk production of a dairy cow, but it can also influence the chemical makeup of the milk. Farmers are paid primarily on “milk components” which include fat and protein. Therefore, it is financially advantageous to feed a TMR that promotes greater concentrations of fat and protein contents in the milk. Again, without diving into the specifics, this is accomplished by the nutritionist and the computer software programs.

On our farm, the main constituents of the TMR that we feed daily are two forages consisting of haylage and corn silage, and a few grains such as high moisture corn, canola, and soybean meal. The canola and soybean meal we purchase from a local grain mill and the other feeds we grow and harvest locally.

Each of these feeds contain a unique nutrient profile that when combined together give our cattle the building blocks they need to be healthy and productive. Now they we have established a basic understanding of the science of feeding cattle in theory, you’re probably curious as to how this feeding plan comes to fruition of the farm itself.

The logistics of getting the computer generated TMR recipe to the cattle themselves is possible with the help of technology. The tractor implement used on most farms to feed their cattle is called a TMR mixer. Essentially the TMR mixer is a massive blender that the feed ingredients are added to one at a time. The entire blender is supported on “load cells” that act as a scale so that the operator knows exactly how much of each ingredient is added.

The computer generated recipe is transferred each morning to the scale on the mixer wagon so that an accurate and consistent feed mixture is delivered to the animals. Different recipes that are fed require different amounts and combinations of the feed ingredients I listed above. On our dairy farm, there are seven different TMR recipes produced each day that are formulated to meet the needs of specific populations of strategically grouped animals. For example, young animals that are not yet producing milk require a different feed than mature ones.

This concept is similar to that of household pets where there are different kibbles for animals of different life stages.

The science of feeding cattle and animals in general has come a long way in recent history. Two generations ago when my grandfather farmed it was still common practice to feed pelleted grain and dry hay to cattle. With the help of research to help us better understand the nutritional requirements of animals, as well as technology and industry professionals to enable us to apply that understanding at the farm level, we are now able to micromanage cattle nutrition.

This allows us not only to support more productive animals, but to do so on a larger scale. I hope this article gave some insight into what goes into feeding the modern dairy cow, which in turn yields the milk and dairy products we all love to consume!

— For comments or suggestions on the Farming in Central New York series of articles, e-mail Daily Sentinel
photojournalist John Clifford at


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