What Do Cows Like to Eat?

  • Article
  • 2 min read January 7, 2016

Farmers grow different types of crops on their farms, and it’s true that some of that goes to feed animals. We know there is confusion about what kind of farming makes the best use of our resources, and we want to help explain part of that today.

In 2008, researchers surveyed 350 dairy farmers from around the country to find out exactly what dairy cows like to eat. After looking into those common ingredients, the researchers learned that 80 percent of what cows eat cannot be eaten by people – we simply can’t digest it.

What Dairy Cows Eat: The Components of Their Diet

Dairy cows' diets typically consist of the following:

  • Grass: More than 50 percent of cow feed is actually grass (farmers call it hay and silage). While people often think dairy cows are fed a high-grain diet, in reality they eat the leaves and stems from corn, wheat and oats far more often than they are eating grain, like corn kernels.
  • Grain: Dairy cows do eat some grain, which usually makes up less than one-quarter of their diet. Some has been grown specifically for cows, and other types have been recycled after food or beverage production -- like barley that has been used first to brew beer. 
  • The rest of a cow’s diet includes ingredients like almond hulls, canola meal (the leftovers from producing canola oil), citrus pulp (the leftovers from making orange juice and other beverages) and more. Here’s the cool thing: These products, which were once thrown away, are actually good for cows. Cows can “unlock” the energy and nutrients in these products that would otherwise go to waste.

The Misconception About What Cows Eat

What about that 20 percent that we could eat? Researchers looked further and found that we wouldn’t want to eat much of it, even if we could. Only 2.2 percent of what cows eat is made up of food that people would want to eat. There simply isn’t a demand for it. So in short, cows really don’t eat food people could eat. It’s just a misconception.

In fact, cows are upcyclers because up to one-third of their diet comes from byproducts, or waste generated from places like food manufacturers and brewers, for example. These include those almond hulls mentioned above, distiller's grains, and even cottonseeds. 

This means our resources are being put to good use: Dairy cows have the unique ability to convert byproducts into human food. Dairy cows thrive on parts of plants that we can’t eat, even if we wanted to. They transform those plants into foods that help us thrive, including delicious and nutritious milk – and don’t forget cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and more!

Dairy farmers take their commitment to feed the nation and the world seriously. To help fight hunger, dairy farmers and companies are working with Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity, to supply gallons of milk to those who need it most via the Great American Milk Drive