1. Home
  2. Knowledge Base
  3. Animal Guides
  4. Cows
  5. Daily Diet, Treats, & Supplements For Cows

Daily Diet, Treats, & Supplements For Cows

A horned cow looks at the camera.
Keeping cows like Hydro healthy starts with providing the right diet! Photo: Oliver and Friends Farm Sanctuary

If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special cow residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of cows at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided. While cows are all individuals who have their own preferences and needs, there are some general principles to consider in their physiology and nutritional needs!

In order to provide cow residents with the best care possible, it’s important to have a basic understanding of their digestive system, eating habits, and nutritional needs. Unfortunately, most of the available information regarding the nutritional needs of cows pertains specifically to cows exploited in production settings. While some of this information can be applied to sanctuary residents, in other cases you will need to use it as a starting point and be prepared to make adjustments as needed. Another challenge of offering appropriate guidelines for sanctuary cows is the fact that sanctuary populations often consist of individuals of different ages and breeds, and what is recommended for one breed may not be appropriate for another (this is especially true if caring for individuals typically raised for their flesh along with those used in milk production, who have very different body types). Like so much in the farmed animal sanctuary world, you’ll need to consider the available information and, sometimes through a system of trial and error, find what works best for your residents.

Daily Food Intake

Cows, like sheep and goats, are ruminants who have a complex digestive system that allows them to get most of their nutrients from roughage. Unlike monogastric animals who are unable to digest cellulose efficiently, ruminants use microbes in their rumen to break down cellulose and hemicellulose, the major components of roughage. Rather than breaking down food by thoroughly chewing it before swallowing, food is broken down by being regurgitated, chewed, and then swallowed again- this process is often referred to as “chewing cud.” As grazing animals, cows are able to get the majority of their nutrients from grass and other green plant matter, either in the form of pasture or hay. In most settings, pasture is not available year-round, and therefore cow residents will eat a combination of pasture and grass hay.

Healthy Weight Woes
Though not the case for everyone, healthy sanctuary cows tend to be heavier than those in a production setting because they are not expending calories on milk production or breeding. You might be surprised how much weight residents can gain on hay and grass alone! Obesity in cows can result in health issues that can negatively impact the quality and length of their life. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean your Holstein residents have to have the same body condition score as cows used in dairy production. If you have a good relationship with your veterinarian, they should be able to advise you when weight issues need to be addressed and how to safely and practically do so. In some cases, you’ll need to make a judgement call. While preventing a cow from grazing on lush pastures and instead feeding them hay in a dry lot will encourage weight loss, you’ll also have to consider how this restriction will impact their quality of life since it not only affects their access to food but also their living space.

Hay

You’ll need an ample supply of grass hay for your cow residents, though the specific variety will depend a lot on your location. Timothy, Bermuda grass, and orchard grass are a few common varieties, though they may not all be available in your area. Hay can come in multiple cuttings, with 1st and 2nd being the most frequently used. The cutting simply indicates when the hay was harvested (cut) for the season- first cutting was harvested first, second cutting is harvested second, and so on. In some areas, first cutting may be all that is available to you- it all depends on your region, the growing season, and your supplier. Depending on the type of hay you use, there may be physical and nutritional differences between the different cuttings. For example, when comparing first and second cutting timothy hay, first cutting is typically coarser than second cutting, which is often richer, softer, and also more expensive (though in some cases, first and second cutting may look very similar). First cutting timothy might be the better choice for healthy, mature cow residents who are at (or above) a healthy weight, while second cutting is usually better for calves, pregnant or nursing individuals, those with dental issues, and those who struggle to keep weight on. It can be a good idea to connect with various suppliers and check out local hay auctions to get an idea of what options are available in your area.

How Much Hay Do Cows Need?
A large holstein cow looks at a pickup truck holding a round bale of hay.
According to Jerry Lee’s math, this entire bale is for him. Photo: Oliver and Friends Farm Sanctuary

In general, offering free choice pasture or grass hay is a good way to ensure your residents have enough to eat, though you may have certain individuals who require something different to meet their specific needs. However, even when feeding free choice, you’ll need to have an idea of how much hay your residents need and will go through, both on a daily and seasonal basis, to ensure you have enough to offer them. Oftentimes you’ll need to purchase hay for the entire season soon after it is harvested (and in some cases, you may need to place your order before it is harvested), so you’ll need to have an idea of how much hay to purchase. Finding hay later on in the season can not only be difficult, it will likely also be much more expensive.

As mentioned above, most recommendations regarding the nutritional needs of cows come from animal agriculture- it can be difficult to find expert recommendations focused on individuals outside of a production setting, especially individuals who are allowed to live past the age at which they are typically slaughtered in an agricultural setting. The amount of hay a cow needs is determined on a dry matter basis (“dry matter” refers to what would remain if all of the moisture was removed). While some individuals may have specific dietary needs, or your veterinarian may have specific recommendations, especially if weight loss is the goal, estimating that each cow resident will consume 3% of their body weight in dry matter each day is a good starting point so long that their hay is a decent quality.

Though different types of hay will have different dry matter content- and you can have your hay evaluated to determine the moisture content- when we consulted with a local cooperative extension office, they suggested that for ease of calculation in a “non-production” setting, you can round up to 100% dry matter content (whereas pasture contains much less dry matter). If you would like a more specific estimate, you will need to determine the dry matter content of your hay and use that in your calculation.

Keep in mind that this is an estimate. There are many factors that contribute to how much hay a group of residents will go through. The quality of the hay and seasonal temperatures will impact how much hay a resident may consume on any given day.

Hay Wastage

It’s also important to consider that some hay will be wasted. Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University emeritus extension animal scientist, estimates that hay wastage can range from 6% to over 20%, though he acknowledges that it is difficult to estimate wastage (and if hay is fed on the ground without a feeder, some wastage estimates are closer to 50%). While cows will always waste some of their hay, certain feeding and storage methods will result in more wasted hay than others, and we will discuss these methods in more detail below. Because it can be difficult (and sometimes nearly impossible) to get large quantities of hay in the middle of winter, it’s best to err on the side of caution and overestimate your hay needs, though you will need to make sure you can properly store all of the hay you purchase. If you are using a feeding method that aims at reducing waste, you can probably assume approximately 10-20% waste, but if you are feeding bales of hay directly on the ground without a feeder (which we do not recommend), you’ll need to estimate a much higher percentage of waste.

Calculating Hay Needs

Using the 3% dry matter recommendation (rounding the dry matter of hay up to 100% for ease of calculation) and taking wastage into account, you can estimate how much hay your entire cow resident population will require by following these steps (or check out our free calculator below):

  1. Calculate the total weight of the herd(s) by adding together the weights of each cow resident
  2. Calculate how much hay per day is needed to feed the entire cow resident population before waste (3% of the weight of the entire herd) 
  3. Estimate how many days per year your residents require hay*
  4. Calculate approximately how much hay will be consumed annually by multiplying the daily hay amount (Step 2) by the number of days hay is required (Step 3)
  5. Calculate approximately how much hay will be wasted annually by multiplying the amount consumed annually (step 4) by the estimated percentage of wastage (based on your feeding methods)
  6. Calculate how much hay you’ll need for the year (in weight) by adding the amount of hay consumed annually (step 4) and the amount wasted annually (step 5)
  7. Determine how many bales you’ll need by taking the total amount needed for the year (step 6) and dividing by the average weight of a bale (based on information from your supplier)

*If residents are on hay year-round, but are on less during times when there is pasture available, you can calculate the amount of hay needed for the portion of the year when they are solely on hay and then calculate an estimate of the amount of hay needed for the other portion of the year, and add those together for an annual total.

Feeding Methods
Type Of Bale

The first thing you’ll have to decide is what types of bales you will feed- not what type of hay, but what size and shape the bale will be. Some of this will depend on what is available in your area and what type of baling equipment your supplier has. In terms of shape, hay comes in round bales and square/ rectangular bales (though rectangular bales are frequently called “square bales”). Large round bales are much more common than small round bales, and typically range between 800lbs and 1500lbs (362-680kg). Square bales come in a wide range of sizes (though not all will be available to you), typically weighing between 50lbs and 1500lbs (22-680kg) (suppliers in your area may only offer one or two different sizes). Depending on your resident population, you may find it makes sense to have both large and small hay bales available, especially if you care for other species who consume hay. Keep in mind that you will need equipment, such as a tractor or skid-steer, with the proper attachment to move large bales of hay, whereas small bales can be moved by hand.

Type Of Feeders

As previously noted, in general, we do not recommend feeding hay without a feeder. Doing so will result in much more waste as cows trample and spread out the hay. While there is still waste with a hay feeder, it will reduce the amount wasted by keeping hay contained. If you are only feeding a few cows, wall-mounted hay racks may be a good option. However, if you need to feed out a large amount of hay, using wall racks can be tedious because you will likely have to fill them by hand. 

For larger populations, a free-standing hay feeder designed for cows or horses may be a better option, especially if you are using large hay bales, as you will be able to use equipment to move the bale directly into the feeder. To prevent the risk of entrapment, avoid styles that a cow could get their head caught in. If using a ring feeder, it’s safest to opt for an open-top variety (sometimes called a tombstone feeder) as there is a risk of entrapment with styles that have a top ring.

Another option would be to build your own hay feeder(s). By designing something yourself, you can build something that suits your residents’ needs while also making the process of feeding hay easier. For example, some sanctuaries have designed covered feed areas with hay feeders built along the perimeter that allow staff to use equipment to move large bales into the feeders without the equipment having to enter the residents’ living space. It can be arduous opening gates to bring equipment into a resident space and either navigating around residents or moving them out of the feeding area ahead of time. Additionally, driving equipment into resident spaces that are wet or snowy can be tricky and can result in muddy or slippery areas that could pose a safety risk to residents.

Whatever feeder design you choose, make sure to use enough feeders to comfortably accommodate all of your residents at once. Cows spend quite a bit of time eating, so you’ll want to make sure everyone has room to eat comfortably.

Feeding Location

Hay feeders can take up quite a lot of space if you are feeding a number of cow residents. It may not make sense, or be possible, to feed residents in their indoor living space, in which case you will need to determine where your residents will be fed. Additionally, depending on your barn design and the type of feeder you are using, it may not be safe to house feeders inside the indoor space, as cows may move free-standing feeders and cause structural damage to the barn. Some sanctuaries opt to place feeders in the residents’ outdoor living space, though in areas that have a lot of precipitation or intense sun, the hay may need to be replaced frequently if it becomes wet or bleached. Feeders will also need to be moved regularly, especially in wet areas, to prevent cows from having to stand in deep mud. If you can, building a covered feed area with proper drainage will help protect the hay from the elements and also allow residents to eat without being stuck out in the rain, snow, or sun.

Feeding Frequency/ Amount

You’ll need to come up with a system regarding how often you plan to feed hay based on the type of bales and feeders you are using, how much hay your residents go through on a regular basis, and your staff capacity (recognizing that you’ll have to adjust your plan if your cow residents start running low sooner than you expected). Depending on your resident population, feeding can be time consuming, so you may find it easier to feed out enough hay to last a few days at a time, but keep in mind that, in general, the more hay you feed at a time, the more will be wasted. Regardless of your system, make sure hay supplies are checked daily and added to as needed.

Whether your bales are secured with wire or twine, be sure to remove this when feeding out hay. Twine is especially easy for cows to ingest, and both twine and wire can also pose safety risks in other ways. Also be aware that it’s not uncommon to find random objects such as aluminum cans, plastic water bottles, and other garbage inside of hay bales (though if this becomes a frequent occurrence, you may want to consider a different supplier). Pay attention to hay bales as they are opened and as hay supplies are checked daily, watching for objects they could ingest. Though cows will seek out the tastiest hay first, they are often referred to as “indiscriminate eaters” and are at risk of ingesting foreign objects that are small enough to fit in their mouth (remember they do not thoroughly chew before swallowing and they take large bites of food), which could result in various health issues, including hardware disease. If you haven’t already, we recommend you talk to your veterinarian about the use of rumen magnets to help prevent serious issues from accidental ingestion of pieces of metal. 

In addition to foreign objects, it’s also important to watch for signs of mold, both in the bales you are feeding out and in any hay leftover in the feeder. Some styles of free-standing feeders have open bottoms so that the hay inside the feeder is resting on the ground. Depending on the weather conditions and how long the hay sits in the feeder, it can become wet and potentially begin to mold even if it is kept in a covered feed area.

Hay Storage

Proper storage of hay is important. If you have large quantities of hay to store, having a separate hay storage area may be the way to go. If you are feeding hay without using equipment, such as in the case of small bales, it can be more convenient to have hay stored inside your cow residents’ barn or feeding area, either in a tack area or hay loft, but keep in mind that hay is a potential fire risk. Storing large quantities of hay inside resident structures is not the safest practice since the hay could potentially cause a fire due to spontaneous combustion (see below) or fuel a fire that starts from a different source.

Moisture Matters!
While you may not need to know the specific moisture content of your hay when estimating how much hay your residents need, you do need to know the moisture content when safely storing your hay. Hay that is baled with a high moisture content can not only become moldy, it can also heat and spontaneously combust! If you store hay inside resident living spaces, we strongly encourage you to check the moisture level first (using a hay moisture meter) to ensure it is safe to store.

When storing hay, keep the following in mind:

  • Hay should be protected from direct sun to avoid bleaching. Sun-bleached hay can lose certain nutrients and become less palatable (resulting in more waste).
  • Hay should be protected from precipitation. If hay becomes wet, it can start to mold, resulting in more waste and also posing a risk to your residents.
  • Hay should not be stored directly on the ground or on concrete flooring as it can absorb moisture, resulting in the bottom row becoming moldy. Using wooden pallets, tires, or something similar will encourage airflow and prevent bales from wicking moisture from the ground.
  • Speaking of airflow, while you want hay protected from the elements, you also want to provide adequate ventilation, especially in the first few weeks after hay is harvested.
  • Be mindful of how you arrange your bales. There are various recommendations regarding how to best arrange bales depending on their size and shape. We recommend you consult with your supplier or your local cooperative extension office for suggestions based on the types of bales you are using and your regional climate. Also keep safety in mind- if you have tall stacks of hay, you’ll need to ensure you can safely pull bales as needed, either manually or with equipment.
  • If you have a combination of older and newer hay, you’ll want to arrange your storage area so that you can easily access and identify older hay to be used prior to newer hay. This will help prevent waste.
  • If you store hay in lofts, these lofts should be inspected and rated for safe capacity, being sure not to store more hay than they can accommodate. 

Storage Safety
Regardless of what type of hay storage you use, if you are storing large quantities of hay, likely you’ll need to put some safety precautions in place to ensure staff, volunteer, and visitor safety. Consider who is allowed in hay storage areas, and put up signage that communicates this. A giant stack of hay may look like a fun climbing structure to a young visitor, so be sure to let people know that these are not play areas. Also consider ways in which you can keep those who do need to access hay storage areas safe. Railing in lofts and safety harnesses for those who must climb to the top of large stacks of hay are just a few options to consider.

Pasture

Six cows graze on an open field outside.
Grazing is more than just a way to get nutrients, it’s an important natural cow behavior! Photo: Oliver and Friends Farm Sanctuary

While not all climates and sanctuary properties can accommodate healthy grass pastures, whenever possible, giving cow residents access to grazing pastures is beneficial. Not only do cows love fresh grass, if your pastures are ample enough to provide the food they need for portions of the year, you’ll be able to spend less money on hay. It’s important to point out that not all vegetation is created equal. We suggest working with your local cooperative extension office to determine which cow-friendly grasses and other vegetation are best suited for your area. Make sure they understand the specifics of your resident population, that these individuals will be living out their entire natural lives at the sanctuary, and that your goal is to support the health and longevity of your residents rather than any sort of production. They will be able to recommend the best seed mix for your pastures as well as other pasture maintenance practices to ensure healthy pasture for your residents. 

Even if you are working with an established pasture, your local cooperative extension office can still be a good resource for you. They can help identify toxic plants that will need to be removed and can give you suggestions to improve pasture health.

A Note About Toxic Plants
While not true of all toxic plants, there are some plants that are toxic to cows that they will typically avoid eating so long as they have enough cow-safe vegetation on their pasture (or supplemental hay), but during times when food is sparse, they may be more likely to consume these toxic plants. So just because you have never had an issue with toxicity, this does not mean that your pastures do not contain toxic plants. It’s a good idea to work with an expert to identify problematic plants and eliminate them from your pastures to prevent any issues.

Grazing Behavior

Cows will spend a significant portion of the daylight hours grazing, though the amount of time will be affected by the weather and pasture quality. On average, cows will graze between six and eleven hours a day and will graze for the longest periods of time and take their largest grazing meals at dusk and dawn with shorter grazing periods in between. This is considered their “natural grazing behavior”. Cows grazing on high quality pasture will spend less time grazing than cows on lower quality pasture, who may have to spend more time looking for palatable forage. Seasonal temperatures will also impact grazing behavior and can cause deviations from their natural grazing behavior. One study suggested that hot and humid weather (over 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 45% humidity) will result in a decrease of about 2 hours of grazing time. In hot climates, midday grazing may be replaced by nighttime grazing in order to avoid activity during the hottest part of the day. 

Cows will eat the best tasting plants and most lush parts of the pasture first, typically choosing tender, immature leaves before more mature plants. They will also avoid eating patches of grass that have been defecated on. Because of this, you will see that the pasture is not grazed uniformly, but instead becomes patchy, with some sections more heavily grazed and others continuing to mature.

How Much Pasture Acreage Does A Cow Need?

If you thought that calculating the amount of hay your residents need was complicated, brace yourself, because estimating how much pasture they need is a whole other thing! To most accurately estimate how much pasture you need in order to feed your cow residents, you will need to know approximately how many pounds of forage each acre of pasture produces (which varies month-to-month). You can find a few different variations of this calculation online, but keep in mind that these are all targeted at producers who are always working from a cost-benefit perspective and typically want to keep the most individuals on the least amount of land. Because there are so many factors that go into this type of detailed estimate, if you would like to go this route, we recommend you work closely with your local cooperative extension office. They should be able to give you estimates for pasture yield based on the type of pasture and your local growing season. They may also be able to give you an idea of how many individuals each pasture can feed without the need for supplementation and without damage to the pasture from overgrazing.

It’s difficult to offer a less complicated guideline for how much pasture acreage is necessary per cow resident because there are just so many factors involved. Some sanctuaries may never be able to have residents solely grazing, either because of the size of the space or the quality of the pasture. However, if you live in an area where grass is abundant, you might use an industry guideline as a starting point- there are many recommendations online that suggest that a cow and her calf require between 1.5- 2 acres to feed them for a year. Of course, most sanctuary residents will not be calves raised with their mother (sadly), but since many mature sanctuary cows are larger than those in production settings, you might use the 1.5- 2 acres (or an adaptation of that) as a starting point per mature sanctuary cow resident. If your plan is to have cows only eat pasture during the grass season, we strongly recommend you overestimate how much pasture they need until you have a good sense of how many individuals your pasture can accommodate, but keep in mind that you never know when a drought or other unexpected event may require you to feed hay rather than rely on pasture.

Apple Alert
As you’ll see below, apples can be a healthy treat for cows and many cows absolutely love them. However, if your pastures or other cow living spaces contain apple (or other fruit) trees or are near enough to apple trees that apples may fall into the pasture, it’s important to note that cows can bloat if they eat too many apples at once, especially if they are not used to them. You’ll want to keep a close eye out for large quantities of apples that have fallen and remove them so that they can be fed out in managed portions, and be aware that cows will often eat any apples on branches that are within their reach.

Pasture Rotation

It’s best if you can offer at least two pastures to your cow residents so that you can rotate between the two. Pasture rotation could be a resource unto itself, but the general idea is that you want your residents to spend some time eating one pasture and then move them to another pasture before they overgraze the first (which can result in damage to the pasture and affect growth and quality in the future). While the herd is grazing on the second pasture, the first pasture has time to regrow. The herd is moved back and forth as needed, watching to ensure pastures do not become overgrazed and typically trying to avoid grasses maturing so much that they go to seed.

Limit Or Avoid These

In general, when feeding healthy, mature cows, it’s best to avoid alfalfa- in pasture, hay, or pelleted form- especially for male cow residents. While blockages from urinary calculi in cows is not as much of a concern as in goats, it is still a possibility. Another reason to avoid alfalfa in your cow residents’ pastures is to prevent the risk of bloat. Alfalfa, as well as various types of clover, can increase the risk of residents developing bloat, especially if plants are immature or moisture is high. Alfalfa hay or alfalfa hay pellets may be recommended for pregnant or nursing cow residents, young calves, and residents who are underweight. However, keep in mind that this may not be the best choice for neutered male residents, in which case you should look into other options (some of which are described below).

Commercial grain (such as sweet feed) should not be a regular part of a healthy, mature cow’s diet. Too much grain can result in obesity, digestive issues, and urinary issues. Remember, we are strictly talking about mature cows- feeding calf starter to calves is typically recommended for healthy rumen development and to ensure they get all the nutrients they need as they transition to solid foods. This is much different than regularly feeding grain to healthy, mature residents. If an individual is struggling to keep weight on, in addition to determining the cause, you can talk to your veterinarian about supplementation with grass hay pellets and/ or beet pulp, both of which are typically healthier and safer alternatives to large quantities of grain and, unlike alfalfa, are safe for both males and females.

Bloat Dangers
Because bloat is a dangerous, and potentially fatal condition, it’s important to take measures to lower your residents’ risk of bloat whenever possible. As mentioned above, it’s best to avoid letting your residents graze on pastures that contain high levels of legumes such as alfalfa or clover, but the risk of bloat is even higher if these plants are lush, immature, or have a higher moisture content. When introducing residents to new types of pasture (which may only occur when you welcome a new resident), be sure to do so slowly and limit their time initially to give them time to adjust. It’s helpful to offer hay in addition to the pasture, especially making sure they are not overly hungry when given access to the pasture. Never put a new cow directly onto a lush pasture! Also make sure any food storage areas that house grain are thoroughly secured to prevent a resident from gaining access to them. If a resident gets into a grain supply, it’s imperative to prevent them from consuming more grain and to contact your veterinarian immediately for instructions on how to respond.

Water For Cows

Two black cows drink from a water tub outside.
Minnie and Tallulah take a drink. Photo: Oliver and Friends Farm Sanctuary

Like every sanctuary resident, cows require a clean, freely-accessible water supply. Because cows will go through a large amount of water a day, it’s best to have a water supply that refills automatically to ensure they are never without water. During non-freezing weather, this can be accomplished fairly easily by setting up a large water trough with a float valve that is hooked up to a hose. As the water level drops due to cows drinking, it automatically refills. Another option, and one that works in freezing temperatures, too, is to install automatic waterers with safe heating elements and thermostats. Be sure all water sources are cleaned and checked regularly to ensure they are refilling properly. If you cannot offer a water source that refills automatically, you will need to check and refill water frequently throughout the day to ensure your residents always have access to fresh water.

The amount of water your residents will consume in a day varies based on their size, the temperature, and whether or not they are eating hay or grazing on pasture, but in general, non-lactating cows will consume 1-2 gallons of water per 100lbs of body weight. Water consumption will increase as temperatures rise, and individuals eating hay will drink more water than those grazing on pasture due to the much lower moisture content of hay compared to fresh vegetation. If you are caring for a mother cow who is nursing her calf, she will require much more water than a non-lactating individual. 

Be aware that blue-green algae can produce toxins that can kill cows if they consume large quantities. Be sure to clean all water sources regularly. If cows have access to a pond, providing aeration can help prevent issues with blue-green algae.

Minerals And Supplements For Cows

Cow residents should have access to supplemental cow-formulated trace minerals, either in loose or block form, and though we call them “minerals” they typically contain some vitamins as well. There are a variety of pre-mixed formulations, but not all mineral supplements are created equal. Ideally, you should work with your veterinarian or a nutritionist to determine the best supplementation program for your residents, taking into considerations the specifics of your region and resident population, including their diet (forage samples can be submitted for analysis to determine nutrient content), any herd-wide health issues that could indicate a deficiency, and whether or not there are issues with deficiencies regionally. For example, many areas in the U.S. are considered selenium deficient, and cows in those areas may require additional forms of selenium supplementation such as selenium boluses.

Once you have identified the proper supplement (or perhaps supplements, if your veterinarian or nutritionist recommends different supplements for different times of the year), you’ll want to ensure your residents consume the correct amount. Refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding how much should be consumed per cow daily, and be sure to pay attention to consumption levels. Some formulas are more palatable than others. If you find that your residents are not eating the minerals, then it really doesn’t matter how good the supplement is, it clearly isn’t the best choice for your residents. Alternatively, though these mineral supplements are typically offered free-choice and cows will regulate how much they ingest, if you find residents are overeating minerals, you’ll need to look into limiting their access or finding a different supplement, though keep in mind that it is not uncommon for cows to consume more when first introduced to the mineral supplement. 

Whether you use loose minerals or blocks, be sure you are offering enough mineral stations for all residents to get what they need. In most cases, it’s a good idea to keep mineral sources near water and where the cows regularly spend time. Minerals should be protected from the elements and excessive moisture in order to prevent waste. There are many different types of mineral feeders, including some that are covered and can be used outdoors. Be sure to find a feeder that your residents can easily use or else they may not consume the proper amount of minerals!

Unless specifically recommended by your veterinarian or a nutritionist, you should not offer more than one mineral formulation at the same time. Any time you switch mineral formulations, be sure to watch closely to ensure proper consumption rates and be on the lookout for any potential signs of deficiencies.

Treats For Cows

A cow eats a pumpkin piece outside.
Mikey enjoys a pumpkin! Photo: Oliver and Friends Farm Sanctuary

Cows are natural grazers, so the majority of what they eat should take the form of grassy foods. Too many treats can result in bloat or GI upset (and in some cases, excessive weight gain). However, an occasional treat can go a long way in keeping cow residents happy (or motivated to cooperate during health treatments). To reduce the risk of choking, it’s best to cut treats into pieces. Healthy cow treats include:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Bananas- with or without the peel
  • Oranges- with or without peel
  • Watermelon- with or without rind
  • Carrots
  • Pumpkins (ensure that there is no part with ink or paint on them, and that it is not rotting!)
  • Alfalfa cubes (females only)
  • Oats

Things That Are Toxic To Cows

Like many herbivores, there are some common plants and foods that are toxic and must be kept out of a cow’s living space for their health. This includes:

  • Lupine
  • Death Camas
  • Nightshades
  • Poison Hemlock
  • Water Hemlock
  • Larkspurs
  • Horse Chestnut and Buckeye
  • Onions and Chives
  • Butterfly Milkweed
  • Foxglove
  • Pigweed
  • Fiddleneck
  • Ponderosa Pine- needles, buds, and young shoots
  • Mayapple
  • Cocklebur
  • Mustards- Indian Mustard, Kale, Rapeseed, Swede, Turnip, Canola, Wild Cabbage, Wild Mustard
  • Yew
  • Elderberry
  • Buttercup
  • Oleander
  • Locoweed
  • Chokecherry
  • Arrowgrass
  • Bracken Fern
  • Halogeton
  • Oak- leaves and acorns
  • Red Maple
  • Lambsquarters
  • Pokeweed
  • Rhizoctonia leguminicola (fungus that can affect red clover and other legumes, causing Slaframine Toxicosis)
  • Rhododendrons
  • Dogbane
  • Marijuana
  • Jimsonweed
  • Black Cherry
  • Castorbean
  • Potato
  • Avocado

See a longer list of things that are toxic to cows here.

Special Food Recommendations For Older Cows

Older cows can sometimes lose, break, or wear down some or many of their permanent teeth through the course of their long lives. As a result, they may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from standard food. Tall or tough pasture grass and hay might be especially difficult for an older cow with worn teeth to eat. If you see someone dropping wads of cud, this is a telltale sign of dental issues- they try their best to chew the grass or hay, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break it down enough to digest. It’s especially important to monitor an older cow’s weight as they age to ensure that they are getting enough to eat (and are able to eat the food available to them). If necessary, you can make your own special food by soaking grass hay pellets and beet pulp or offering chopped hay (for females, you can offer soaked alfalfa pellets if they truly need the extra calcium and protein, but this can lead to urinary calculi in males). By giving them foods that do not require the extensive chewing that hay and grass require, you can ensure residents with dental issues are still getting all of the nutrients they need. You can also have a veterinarian evaluate and file or remove any teeth that have gotten uncomfortably sharp or painful, though this may need to be done through a veterinary hospital’s dental service rather than through an onsite visit with your regular veterinarian.

In general, you should be very mindful of an older cow’s weight. It is common for some breeds of cows to become overweight as they continue to eat at the same pace while lowering their general activity levels due to arthritis or stiffness. Obesity in cows can lead to a host of health issues. Underweight cows may be losing out on food from competing cows or may be eating and ingesting less due to dental issues and may need their own special source of food to stay healthy. You can supplement a thin cow’s food with a source that is higher in protein to help them put on more weight, just make sure to keep monitoring their weight to evaluate the diet’s effectiveness, and be sure to identify the cause of the weight loss to determine if other interventions are necessary!

If it seems like older cows aren’t thriving, it could be a vitamin or mineral imbalance due to less effective eating and digestion. In addition to ensuring that the whole herd has ample access to appropriate minerals, you can supplement an older cow friend’s vitamins and minerals with a cow-safe vitamin booster, under the guidance of your veterinarian, to help clear up any nagging deficiencies. We’ve heard reports of some breeds of cows having an anaphylactic reaction to some vitamin and mineral injectable formulas, so be sure to have a discussion with your veterinarian about what signs to look for and how to respond if a resident has an adverse reaction. Discuss all potential vitamin and mineral supplementation options with your veterinarian before implementing changes.

Read more about older cow care, here

Annual Hay Supply Calculator

To help calculate approximately how much hay you will need to purchase for the year, we’ve developed a calculator for your use! In order to understand the principles behind this calculator, check out the equations broken down earlier in this resource!

SOURCES:

How To Store Hay To Make It Last | Hobby Farms

Can Cows Eat Bananas? | Farmhouse Guide

Plants Poisonous To Livestock In The Southern US | University Of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service

Basic Beef Cattle Nutrition Fact Sheet | Ontario Ministry Of Agriculture, Food, And Rural Affairs (Non-Compassionate Source)

Understanding The Ruminant Animal Digestive System | Mississippi State University Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Hay Storage: Dry Matter Losses And Quality Changes | Mississippi State University Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Hay Enough Hay | Hay And Forage Grower (Non-Compassionate Source)

How Much Hay Do You Need This Winter? | Beef Magazine (Non-Compassionate Source)

Bloat In Cattle: How Real Is The Risk | Drovers (Non-Compassionate Source)

5 Considerations For Proper Hay Storage During Winter | Beef Magazine (Non-Compassionate Source)

Interpreting Grazing Behavior | Texas A&M AgriLife Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Grazing Behavior Basics | Drovers (Non-Compassionate Source)

Balancing Your Animals With Your Forage | Natural Resources Conservation Services (Non-Compassionate Source)

Water Requirements And Quality Issues For Cattle | University Of Georgia Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

How Much Water Do Cows Drink Per Day? | UNL Beef (Non-Compassionate Source)

Mineral Supplements For Beef Cattle | University Of Georgia Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Oranges Keep Cows Healthy | All About Feed (Non-Compassionate Source)

Can Cows Eat Fruits And Vegetables? | Kimmi’s Dairyland (Non-Compassionate Source)

Fact Sheet: Poisonous Plants For Cattle | Beef Magazine (Non-Compassionate Source)

Plants Poisonous To Livestock | Cornell College Of Agriculture And Life Sciences

Poisonous Plants That Can Kill Cattle | Beef Magazine (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?
If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 1, 2021

Related Articles

Support Our Work
Please consider supporting The Open Sanctuary Project by making a donation today! We are 100% donor-funded and rely on the support of generous individuals to provide compassionate resources to animal caretakers worldwide.
Donate Now HERE