You are what you eat is also true for dairy cows

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

In my last column, I looked at growing corn for milk feed. This week I want to explain what happens on the other end of the spectrum when these raw materials are actually fed to our animals.

Milk nutrition and the feeding of cows in general have come a long way over the past 50 years due to a combination of better research and technology that is helping farmers provide consistent and well-formulated nutrition. Total Mixed Ration (TMR for short) is the most common type of feed that is delivered to dairy cows today. TMR is a mix of all the different ingredients that animals need to meet all of their specific nutritional needs.

Many factors play a role in developing a TMR for cattle, including the age of the animal, size, stage of lactation, reproductive status and the feed ingredients available on the farm.

Most modern dairies develop specific TMR rations with the help of a dairy nutritionist, who is usually either self-employed or works as part of a milk feed manufacturer. The job of a nutritionist is to collect all relevant data from a farm that
play a role in influencing the animals’ nutritional needs, e.g.

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

Developing a feeding schedule for a dairy is an intricate task that has been revolutionized by computers. Nutritionists are able to use milk simulator software that can predict the nutritional needs of animals under certain parameters. Samples of the individual feed ingredients are taken from the farm and regularly sent to a chemical analysis laboratory so that a complete and comprehensive nutrient profile is understood. These laboratory samples break down each food ingredient into macro and micronutrients so that the computer software can assess how that particular food ingredient is feeding the animal.

Some of the key nutrients that need to be balanced to meet the needs of cattle are protein, starch, fat, vitamins and minerals. Once these things are understood and assessed, this information is then used to create the recipe or TMR mixture that is made and delivered to the animals on the farm.

There is some truth to the saying “you are what you eat” and it is certainly no exception in cattle. There are four main pillars of cattle nutrition:

Maintenance (breathing and organ function);

Growth (new tissue development);

Pregnancy; and


These pillars or food paths are arranged in a hierarchy, meaning that the animal’s body always has priority over growth over growth and so on. This is an important phenomenon to understand as the goal of commercial dairy farms is to produce milk for sale. The higher the nutritional level, the greater the chance of producing more milk for the cattle. That being said, diet can be the most influential determinant of milk production, but it’s not the only limiting factor.

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

The nutritional level not only influences the total milk production of a dairy cow, but can also influence the chemical composition of the milk. Farmers are paid mainly on “milk components” which include fat and protein. Hence, it is financially beneficial to feed a TMR that promotes higher levels of fat and protein in the milk. Again, without going into the details, this is accomplished through the dietitian and computer software programs.

On our farm, the main components of the TMR that we feed on a daily basis are two types of feed consisting of haylage and corn silage, and some grains such as high moisture corn, rapeseed and soybean meal. We buy the rapeseed and soybean meal from a local flour mill and the other feed that we grow and harvest on site.

Each of these feeds contains a unique nutrient profile that, when combined, gives our cattle the building blocks they need to be healthy and productive. Now that we have a basic understanding of the science of cattle feeding in theory, you are probably curious to see how this feeding plan works on the farm itself.

The logistics of bringing the computer-generated TMR recipe to the cattle themselves is possible with the help of technology. The tractor device that most farms use to feed their cattle is called a TMR mixer. In essence, the TMR mixer is a massive mixer to which the feed ingredients are added one at a time. The entire mixer is supported by “load cells” that act as scales so the operator knows exactly how much of each ingredient is being added.

The computer-generated recipe is transferred to the mixer wagon’s scales every morning so that an accurate and even feed mix is ​​delivered to the animals. Different recipes that are fed require different amounts and combinations of the feed ingredients listed above. Seven different TMR recipes are made daily on our dairy farm, tailored to the needs of specific populations of strategically grouped animals. For example, young animals that are not yet producing milk need a different feed than adult ones.

This concept is similar to that of domestic animals, where there are different kibbles for animals at different stages of life.

The science of feeding cattle and animals in general has come a long way in recent history. Two generations ago, when my grandfather was working in agriculture, it was still common to feed cattle pellets and dry hay. With the help of research to help us better understand animal nutritional needs, as well as technology and industry experts who enable us to apply that understanding at the agricultural level, we are now able to micromanage cattle nutrition.

This not only enables us to support more productive animals, but to a greater extent. I hope this article gave some insight into feeding the modern dairy cow, which in turn provides the milk and dairy products we all love to consume!

– For comments or suggestions on the Farming in Central New York series of articles, email the Daily Sentinel
Photojournalist John Clifford at

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