Unlike people, cattle can eat grass and get the nutrients they need thanks to the magic of a rumen and the protozoa and bacteria that live inside it. Now let’s talk about what exactly beef cattle do eat.
What Do Beef Cattle Eat?
Our beef cows are on pasture (grass) for as much of the year is possible. Here in southwest Indiana, that usually means they are eating grass as their primary food from May through September, give or take a month or two. It really depends on the weather and how well the grass grows.
During the winter, we feed them hay. We grow our own hay and bale it during the summer. We store the hay in large round bales inside our barn to keep it dry and out of the weather until we need to feed it to the cows. Here is my 6’4″ husband John standing with some of our hay bales. Each bale weighs between 1200-1500 pounds. John moves them around with a tractor and can stack them three high in our barn.
We are able to keep the hay inside because we have a small farm (10 cows at our home farm and 20 cows at a second location). For our climate, we need to figure that we will need between 4-6 large round bales of hay per cow to get through the winter, so we are sure to store at least 60 bales of hay at the farm at our house, and around 120 bales of hay at our other farm. Larger farms (or farms without a big hay storage barn) need to keep the hay outside where it is exposed to the weather. This can result in some mold growth and decay of the hay. While this doesn’t hurt the cows, it does result in some loss of volume, so it takes more bales of hay to feed the same amount of cows.
We feed the hay to our cows in a bale ring. The bale goes on its side (flat side down) inside the ring, and the cows can reach in through the slots in the side to eat the hay. Hay can also be fed on the ground. Most of the time, cows will eat from the top or sides of the hay bales, like you see in the picture below. If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen the pictures of the cows eating out of the center of the bale!
During the winter and while the cows are nursing their calves, we also feed them grain. The grain we use is cracked corn. This is just what it sounds like – corn that has been dried and then cracked into smaller pieces. We feed cracked corn (instead of whole kernels) because it is easier for the cows, and their rumen microbes, to digest. It is a bit dusty sometimes, depending on how much it has been cracked. (Smaller pieces make for more dust.) Here is what we are feeding our cows now.
The calves and yearling heifers (female cows up to two years old) get fed a little different food. We feed them something called “creep feed.” This is cracked corn with added vitamins, minerals, and protein. In addition to the corn, this feed has a pellet and a powder mixed in that have the added ingredients. The younger animals need the extra nutrients for growth.
It’s called creep feed because when we start feeding it to the calves we use a creep feeder. Basically, it’s a feed trough inside a little pen. The calves can get inside to eat, but the big cows don’t fit.
So that’s the beef cattle. Dairy cattle have a different job, and they have different nutritional needs. Read more about what dairy cattle eat here.
Do you have more questions about what cattle eat and why? Leave me a comment below!