Ask a Dairy Farmer: What Do Cows Eat?

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From Florida to California, the ingredients found in a cow’s diet can not only vary by geography, but also by season.

With the help of professional nutritionists, it’s very common for dairy farmers across the country to routinely feed their cows byproducts from the processing of other foods and fibers just one of the ways dairy farmers help their communities be more sustainable. The use of these byproducts is endorsed by animal nutritionists who work with dairy farmers on creating optimal diets for cows. 

For example, cows at Matt Lussier’s Florida dairy farm have quite a taste for citrus pulp. This byproduct of Florida’s citrus industry is a cow feed staple on most of the state’s dairies. 

The citrus pulp and peel that remain from the process of making grapefruit and orange juice is dried and converted into a pellet-like feed that is a good source of energy and calcium for dairy cows. Dairy farmers mix citrus pulp with other feed that makes for a tasty feast.

“Citrus pulp is very palatable,” Lussier said. “That’s one of the main reasons I feed it. You can put the best ingredients in the world in front of a cow but if she doesn’t eat it, it doesn’t do her any good. So you put stuff in there that they want to eat.” 

Byproducts also tell a story of how dairy farmers contribute to a healthy planet. Lussier figures about half of what he feeds his cows each day is a byproduct of another industry. 

“We’re talking tons and tons of stuff that these other industries would have no use for if it weren’t for the dairy industry,” he said. “Byproducts are huge for dairy farmers.” 

Cows are natural upcyclers, and any human food waste that’s included in their diet is regulated to ensure safety and nutrition by agencies including the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Here are some other examples of nutritionist-approved byproducts commonly used by dairy farmers around the country: 

Almond Hulls: outer covering of the almond kernel and shell that serves as a fiber source. 

Brewers Grains: extracted residue of barley malt from the processing of beer and other grain products such as cereal that serves as a protein supplement. 

Cottonseeds: unprocessed oilseed that has been separated from the cotton fiber used to make clothing and other items. Cottonseeds provide a source of fat and fiber. 

Distillers Grains: obtained following the removal of ethyl alcohol through the distillation process. Used as a protein supplement, these grains include barley, cereals, corn, rye, sorghum and wheat. 

Hominy: mixture of corn bran, corn germ and part of the starchy portion of corn kernels from the production of grits. It’s a good energy source of fiber, starch and fat. 

Molasses: byproduct of sugar production from cane or sugar beets. Molasses helps improve the palatability of certain feeds, especially with calves, and also is a good source of niacin. 

Plus, dairy farmers work with their cow nutritionists to find other foods that they can add to their cows’ diets other than more traditional feed ingredients. For example, Arizona dairyman Paul Rovey adds beets to his cows' feed.