Dairy cows have a metabolism that is always going like gangbusters. So they need to eat a lot of food. A lactating dairy cow will eat 100 pounds of food every day! But more important than the amount of food is that they get the right kinds of food to keep them healthy.
At the New Generation Dairy, the cows are fed a combination of alfalfa haylage and a total mixed ration. Brian grows as much of his own feed as he can. Here, he is harvesting some alfalfa haylage for the girls.
The harvesting of alfalfa for haylage is similar to how we harvest hay for round bales for our beef cattle, with two main differences. First, the hay for haylage is not dried before it is collected. It is stored a little bit wet, under tarps, and this makes the hay ferment just a little bit. This changes the sugar and starch content, and makes it easier for the cows to digest.
Second, it is cut into smaller pieces. Pieces of hay in a bale might be a foot long or longer. In chopped hay, the pieces are only a 1.5-2 inches long. This also makes it a little easier for the cows to digest.
Instead of baling the haylage, it is stored in big piles under tarps to help it ferment and to protect it from the weather and from bugs. Here, they are adding a load of freshly-cut alfalfa to some that was harvested earlier this spring. As the haylage ferments and ages, the color changes a little bit.
The girls here are also fed a total mixed ration, or TMR. TMR is basically a bunch of different types of feed mixed in specific proportions to provide all the nutritional needs for the cows. New Generation Dairy has a nutritionist come once a month to analyze their feed. They mix all their TMR right on site, and will mix different combinations for cows that are at different stages of lactation or growth.
Every dairy has their own special recipe. The TMR at New Generation Dairy has seven different parts…
1. Pelleted soybean hulls. This is the soybean pod that has been processed into a pellet form. Soybean hulls have a high protein and fiber content.
2. Cottonseed. Next to corn, cottonseed is almost nature’s perfect food for dairy cows – it has high levels of protein, fat, and fiber. A nutritionally balanced snack!
3. Dried distillers grains, or DDG, a by-product from making ethanol from corn. DDG are a protein-packed food product for cattle.
4. Wet gluten, a by-product from making high-fructose corn syrup, or corn sugar. This is a low sugar, high starch feed product (most of the sweetness was removed to make the corn sugar), with lots of protein and fiber for a bonus! Even though it’s not very sweet, the cows eat it like it’s candy!
Using the DDG and wet gluten is another form of conservation for farmers. Instead of wasting these “by-products” from other processes, we can use them as a high-quality feed supplement for our cows.
5. Alfalfa hay. This is the same type of hay that is used to make the haylage, but it is cut into longer pieces, dried longer in the field, and baled into large square bales. Alfalfa hay has around a 20% protein content.
6. Straw. Straw is great for roughage and for rumen health. This is mostly fed to the cows that are getting ready to calve. It keeps their rumen microbes happy, which makes the transition from pregnant to lactating easier on the cow.
7. Energy nugget. I swear, that’s what this is called! It’s a vitamin- and mineral-packed “energy nugget.” The cows who have just calved have this added to their TMR for the first 30 days of lactation. The transition from pregnancy to lactating is a big one, and this extra energy boost helps the cows make that transition.
A nutritionist comes to the New Generation Dairy every three weeks to test the nutritional value of each part of the TMR (including the hay, straw, and haylage), and to help Brian formulate the exact recipe for each group of cows (ready to calve, just calved, mid-lactation, late lactation).
Each batch of TMR weighs in at around 9 tons, and they go through almost 60 tons (that’s 120,000 pounds) a day!
The TMR is measured out for the cows twice a day. Brian and the rest of the crew has a good idea of how much the cows will eat in a day, and they feed 5% extra at each feeding. Seven times a day, someone walks down the feed aisle and pushes the feed back towards the cows so they can always reach it. Right before the next feeding, whatever feed is leftover is scooped up and weighed. If there is too much left, they will feed a little less next time. If there is not enough left, they will feed a little more next time.
Brian wants to be sure there is always fresh food available to these cows. They truly have an all-you-can eat buffet, and the option to come back and snack whenever they want. Making milk takes a lot of energy and a lot of calories, so it is important that they have access to plenty of high-quality, high-nutrition food.
Wouldn’t you like your own personal chef? I’m sure their diet is more nutritionally balanced than mine is!