Feeding Plan For Your Family Cow (List Included)

Cross bred dairy cow eating hay

What should you feed your family cow and how much does she need? Do her needs change though out the year?

Sounds like you need a plan for feeding your cow!

Your cow needs all of the roughage (grass, hay, etc.) that she wants to eat per day and may need some supplemental grain, depending upon her body condition and the quality of the roughage she is eating.

Once you spend some time with your cow, figuring out what to feed your cow, even as her needs change through out the year, will become second nature to you.

If you are looking for family cow breed suggestions, be sure to click to my article 5 Best Family Cow Breeds For Beginners.

How do you know if you’re ready? My guide “Are You Ready For A Family Cow?” will walk you through the things you need to have figured out, including feeding needs and daily care, before you get your cow.

You’ll begin to see a pattern emerging and know that your cow is an easy keeper, meaning she will easily keep body condition on the feed you give her.

Or you’ll find the opposite, that your cow a heavier milker who needs an bit more energy in her daily ration to keep on the weight.

The great news is that this knowledge will come with time.

The challenge is what to do until you get your feeding plan figured out! No worries, that’s what we’re going to figure out here!

Family Cow Daily Care goes over a basic routine for you and your cow. This is just a good place to start, adjust the routine to fit your situation.

Determine what your cow will need to eat

Your cow’s daily diet will depend upon what you have available for her. There are two sections below, all she can eat grass and roughage that you will be providing.

Your cow has: all she can eat grass

Good news, you’ve got an easy job! Just keep her supplied with plenty of water and a salt block and you’re good to go.

Your cow can get all of her daily nutritional needs from grass alone, as long as she can eat all that she wants.

How do you tell if she has eaten enough grass? Easy, she’ll tell you by laying down and chewing her cud.

Your cow should fill up in an hour or two then spend the rest of the day relaxing and chewing her cud.

When you see this pattern in your cow’s daily eating combined with a slick hair coat, you’ll know she is in great health and condition!

How do you know if you’re ready? My guide “Are You Ready For A Family Cow?” will walk you through the things you need to have figured out, including feeding needs and daily care, before you get your cow.

Your cow has: roughage you provide

Roughage is the word for plants that the cow eats. This would be the grass she gets herself and anything you provide that is not grain based, like hay.

The easiest way to figure out an eating plan for your cow is to start with the basics.

Here are the breed average weights and a 3% of body weight calculation. (3% of her body weight is what she will eat everyday.)

Breed of cow Average weightPounds hay needed/day
Brown Swiss1,50045
Milking Shorthorn1,10033

The average weights are from the American Dairy Association.

Your cow needs a base of calories to fuel all of her daily body work, digestion, cell repair, etc, and provide the energy to make milk.

Lactation is an energy hungry process, meaning a milking cow will need more daily energy than a dry (not milking) cow.

You are looking for the pounds per day of feed that will be the starting point for your cow’s feeding plan.

Please understand, this is a generic number that is a breed average, that’s all. Not specific to your cow (she’s an individual just like you are) or your farm!

Haylage close up view
Close up view of some haylage that we feed our cows. Haylage is a fermented, like sauerkraut, and our cattle love it! It always looks a little more brown than hay would, so don’t let that put you off of giving it a try, especially if dry hay is hard to make in your area!

Keep cow hay on hand

To make sure you can give your cow the care she needs, have extra hay on hand.

For the times of the year when you are providing all of her feed, I would suggest keeping on hand:

  • 20-25 small square bales of first cutting hay (40-50 pound bales)
  • 10 bales of a very high quality supplemental hay
  • 200 pounds of grain (if your cow needs it)

The reasons for the two types of hay are explained below.

The main reason you should consider keeping a bit of wiggle room in your hay supply is to keep your cow well fed when things don’t go as planned.

An ice storm or a flat tire will disrupt your day but doesn’t stop your cow from eating!

High Quality Hay is an article I wrote to give you specific tips to use to make sure you get great hay for your money.

Your cow’s feed needs will vary

  • Individuality
  • Stage of lactation
  • Adjusting for weather
  • Supplemental energy

Your cow’s nutritional needs will change as the year goes by. When forage is abundant in the spring she will need very little to nothing from you.

In the seasons of the year with limited fresh forage, she will need you to take care of her.

That’s just for her maintenance needs. Throw in pregnancy and dry periods and there are a few more changes for you to take into consideration.

Once again, no need to worry, just watch your cow and adjust as needed.

Cow feed intake varys between individuals

As I mentioned above, your cow is an individual! It can be surprising the variability of feed efficiency between cows of the same breed!

Check out my article Selecting A Family Cow for a checklist of things to look for when picking out your cow.

Our main experience is with Jerseys. It takes years of selection in a herd to get all of the cattle looking close to the same.

Even if the breeder is using A.I., there will be a variety of body shapes and feed efficiencies in the group.

For example: One of our Jerseys, Dana, was a beautiful caramel colored, shiny cow that always tended to be on the fatter side.

She was just a cow that metabolically made sure to keep on the weight first and use any extra for milking.

The other 50 or so Jerseys we had in the milking herd at the time did not tend toward carrying extra condition at all, but she did.

wrapped bale of haylage
We feed haylage to our sheep and our cows. It works great and is more easily available in years when high quality dry hay is hard to find.

Adjust feed for your cow’s stage of lactation

That title sounds a bit too technical, all it really means is you’ll need to watch your cow to see how she is performing on the feed you are giving her.

Your cow will need differing amount of energy through out her lactation cycle.

When she is milking, she needs the most energy. When she is dry (not milking), she needs less energy per day.

If your cow will calve in the spring, at the same time as the deer in your area have fawns, then she will be lined up perfectly with nature!

How do you know if you’re ready? My guide “Are You Ready For A Family Cow?” will walk you through the things you need to have figured out, including feeding needs and daily care, before you get your cow.

Your pasture will provide for her needs through the lactation with little needed help from you.

The further off of this natural alignment, the more adjustments you’ll need to make to her available feed.

Since dairy cows can and do have calves year round, your cow may be on a different schedule than spring calving.

Not to worry. As long as you pay attention to her hair coat and body condition, you’ll be treating her well.

How Much Milk? goes over your cow’s lactation curve and what you can do to keep her milking at her best.

Weather and/or seasonality require feed adjustments

Weather will play a large and ever changing role in feeding your family cow.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have all of the grazing she needs for the summer, you’ll still need a bit of hay for the non growing season.

Or for crazy weather situations when the pasture is not available, like droughts or flooding.

If you do not have access to plentiful pasture, no worries, you’ll just move to the hay feeding part of the year sooner.

The biggest weather adjustment you’ll need to keep in mind is for the really cold weather.

Your cow will need to burn more calories to stay warm than normal, meaning less of the daily calories are available for making milk.

Your cow might need supplemental energy

If you notice that your cow is not peppy and shiny, consider that she may need more calories in her daily ration than she is getting.

This will be more likely in the summer slump of pasture growth and anytime you are feeding hay.

The good new is that you have options to get your cow the extra calories that she needs! The two easiest are very high quality hay and/or a small scoop of grain.

Supplemental Hay Very high quality hay can be used more like a snack or an energy bar.

A flake or two per day of great 2nd or 3rd cutting grass or alfalfa will be just the thing to get your cow the bump up in nutrition that she needs.

Supplemental Grain A small scoop of grain, start out with 2-3 pounds or so, will help you get your cow the extra energy she needs.

Get a dairy mix if you can, but even a general livestock feed will give her more calories to help her perform at her best.

Measure/weigh the feed! Start with a smaller amount and work up if you need to. If you don’t have a scale, use a 3 pound coffee can.

Feed is heavier than coffee so that can will hold 5 pounds or so of feed. Start with one can of feed per day, split into two feedings.

Give her a week or so to see if what you are doing is working before you give more!

Word to the wise: you cow will pig out on supplemental energy feeds, grain or great hay!

Do not let her eat all that she wants or she will get the “kid who ate too much candy” type stomachache.

This will cause her to drop in milk, sometimes to near nothing, and get runny manure. She’ll probably come back around, but why risk it?

Jersey cow grazing
Our cow, Aleene, grazing in the early spring.

Evaluate your cow’s feed by results

The way to evaluate your results is to look at the cow! While that sounds obvious, it is the best way to figure out if what you are doing is working for your cow.

Check your cow’s hair coat and manure

  • Hair coat, is it shiny?
  • Manure, has the right consistency?

If your cow has a shiny hair coat, what ever you are doing is working well for her.

Rough hair coat means that she is not getting the nutrition that she needs and you need to consider deworming her and give her better roughage or supplement with grain.

As far as manure goes, you are looking for pudding like consistency. Watery manure means she got too much feed.

The exception here is if she is on grass, then she may have thinner manure on lush grass, but it would still have some consistency to it.

Maine Organic Farmers article Raising A Family Cow is a nice overview of choosing and keeping your best milker!

If your cow needs weight, deworm

The easiest way to put weight on your cow is to make sure she has been dewormed.

In some areas, parasites are getting resistant to certain types of dewormers. Additionally, not all dewormers will work on all parasites. This is a question for your vet.

If your cow does not have worms the next step is to up her daily calories. Add a few flakes of well made hay or a few pound of grain to her daily ration.

If it is winter, please realize that dairy cattle have been bred to put their extra energy into milk, not fat to stay warm.

Your girl is not a beef cow, she needs a bit more TLC and some extra energy from her feed to keep body condition in extreme weather.

Internal Parasites In Beef And Dairy Cattle is a Dairy Cattle Extension article that goes over the parasites of concern specifically for your cow, including parasite life cycle and deworming practices.

If your cow is fat, reduce energy of feed

If your cow is a bit porky, cut out the supplemental feeding! You are fortunate to have an easy keeping cow, let her do her job for you!

Be sure you actually have an overly fat cow, not a productive cow with a big fuel/fermentation tank (stomach).

How can you tell? Check the tail head (this is where the tail meets the backbone). If you see fat rolls at the tail head, she’s fat.

If her tail head is not fat, she is not overweight. From the front, a cow that is chock full of grass will look like a barrel with legs and a head sticking out.

This big tum is normal and healthy for a productive and happy family cow.

Older kids can care for the cow

When I was talking to my husband about this article, he took the title “feeding plan” to mean who in the family can or should take care of the cow and how to divide up the chores.

I have to admit, that was not what I thought initially, but it definitely needs to be worked out.

My best idea to help you figure out cow chores is to think of caring for a pony instead of a cow.

Would you expect your kiddo feed her pony? What about watering and pitching the manure?

In these aspects, a pony and a cow are very similar. A kid capable enough to care for a pony, is probably capable enough to care for a cow.

Another option would be to divide up the chores, like one person handle the watering and hay and another person handle the milking.

Please take into account, for the sake of the cow, that other members of your family may not be as keen on the whole family cow thing as you are.

If that’s the case, be happy that you get all of the cow time and enjoy it!

How do you know if you’re ready? My guide “Are You Ready For A Family Cow?” will walk you through the things you need to have figured out, including feeding needs and daily care, before you get your cow.

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