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How to Feed & Manage Dairy Cattle

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson will provide a brief overview and introduction to the business of feeding and managing dairy cattle. We'll explore what facilities and equipment should be considered and what to feed dairy cows. We'll also look at basic cow biology.

Dairy Industry

The U.S. has a massive dairy cattle industry. That would be the cattle that produce milk, which, of course, helps produce all sorts of great things like yogurt, ice-cream, and the cheese you love. In this highly complex industry, there is a lot to consider when deciding how best to feed and manage dairy cattle. This lesson will go over the basics of this industry.

Basic Facilities, Operations, & Equipment

The way a dairy cattle operation is managed and run all depends on what you want to gain. There are dairy farmers who raise just a handful of cattle in, essentially, backyard barns. They may sell to the local public or produce just enough for themselves. They will be able to manage just about everything on their own, much of it by hand.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there will be massive and highly mechanized operations with thousands of dairy cattle being fed, vaccinated, and milked by a mix of people and machines. These are the ones that are most likely to sell their milk to the big chain grocery stores in your city.

Dairy Cows
Dairy Cows

Here's a basic rundown of the facilities that must be considered by someone starting a dairy operation:

  • Barns and stalls
  • Pastures
  • Feed centers

Similarly, the equipment that may be necessary to run a successful operation includes the following:

  • Watering equipment
  • Barn supplies
  • Feeders
  • Milking equipment
  • Outerwear (like aprons and gloves) for employees

Of course, these are just a few examples and there are important variations within each possible facility or piece of equipment. For instance, the design of the floor of each facility can greatly impact how much milk a cow will yield based on how physically stressful or unsanitary the floor design is to the cow's anatomy and physiology.

Basic Biology & Nutrition

Speaking of that, bovine (cattle) biology is quite unique in many ways compared to other animals, like dogs or humans. For example, cattle have four large and important sections to their stomach, whereas people and many other animals only have one. The cow's largest portion of their stomach system is called the rumen, which contains lots of microorganisms that help the cow digest its food. The rumen can hold just a bit more than 40 gallons of ingesta, the stuff a cow eats and drinks.

In order to produce lots of great quality milk, a cow must be fed and watered properly. Dairy cattle need about 3-5 gallons of water in order to produce a gallon of milk. This means a cow may need to drink about 45 gallons per day during peak lactation. Ergo, in order to produce lots of good milk, dairy cattle must be provided with water ad libitum, that is to say, freely. They should be able to drink as much as they want. The water should also be of appropriate temperature. This means it may need to be heated in the wintertime, depending on where you live.

When it comes to food, lactation, the production of milk, places great stress on the body, so much so that a cow will have very high energy demands placed on its body in terms of how much food it needs to eat during this time. This means that feed fed to dairy cattle during lactation should be fully balanced, to say the least. Dairy cattle should be fed a proper mix of feed concentrates, which are grains that provide high levels of energy, as well as roughages, like grass and hay, which help prevent digestive disorders that may arise when a cow is given too much grain.

Dairy Cows Eating Hay
Dairy Cattle

Basic Reproduction

Of course, the production of high quality milk may not be just for people. Lactation in cattle is naturally a part of raising baby cattle, or calves. These calves may themselves become dairy cattle if they are of the female sex. Thus, reproduction is a very important part of raising dairy cattle. There are several important factors that must be considered when breeding a dairy cow. One of them is weight. The weight at which a dairy cow should be bred varies based on the breed of the cow in question and her milk production. If the cow has a history of poor milk production, breeding her is generally not recommended.

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