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Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Dairy Cows

Jun 20, 2016

By: Kelly Whitcomb


Recently I have been questioned about the differences between a grass-fed or grain-fed dairy cow. People want to know which feeding regime is going to be more beneficial for their cow, milk production, and cost. With numerous opinions floating around about this topic, it's very easy to get caught up in the latest trends, steering further away from the reality of dairy nutrition.

Not one dairy operation is the same, therefore it is important to first look at the cow itself. Breeds play an important role in determining the proper nutrition for that animal. There are many "dual purpose" breeds, such as the Devon or the Short Horn, that do great on a strictly grass-fed diet because their milk yield is lower; this means their energy requirements are also less. We see many beef operations who are very successful doing this. Yet breeds designed for maximum milk production, such as Jerseys, Holsteins or Guernseys, require much more energy and therefore do very poorly on forage alone.  

When fed in moderation, grain is an excellent source of energy for milking cows. Grain provides energy needed to maintain good body score, which is essential for these cows with a higher production rate. Without grain these cows would become too thin, causing a decrease in milk production, breeding complications, and the inability to regain body composition when being bred back. Grain is also important for the maintenance of good body condition while calving so that these cows have the reserves needed to make milk without becoming too thin. So to put it simply, when fed appropriately, grain-fed dairy cows are not only healthier, but have a higher milk production therefore being more cost effective for the farmer.

Furthermore, forage is still crucial for a healthy cow. Roughage, such as grass or long-stemmed hay, plays a huge role in the diet of a dairy cow because of its ability to maintain a healthy gut for fermentation. When a cow chews the forage, they produce saliva which acts as a buffer to balance out the pH of the rumen. In order for the cow to digest fiber, the rumen is populated by microorganisms who thrive in a neutral to slightly-acidic environment. When a cow is fed a diet too high in concentrate, the sugars and starches are rapidly metabolized causing the rumen to become overly acidic, leading to complications known as Rumen Acidosis. In order to avoid this, and to maintain a happy rumen, you'll see cows constantly munching or "chewing their cud".

In summary, the breed of cow is a significant part of choosing a feeding regime for your dairy operation. For the "dual purpose" breeds, grass-fed operations have a greater chance of being successful than the cows bred to have much higher milk production. These cows' energy requirements will only be fulfilled by incorporating grain with their forage. Grain should be fed in moderation with a quality forage source, such as grass or long-stemmed hay, in order to maintain a healthy rumen. In doing so, farmers should find themselves with healthy, maximum producing, cost-effective cows.

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