There isn’t much need to turn on the TV and listen to talk about athletes; farmers don’t have to look far for creatures that fall into that category. The dairy cow is a prime athlete found on farms across the United States. Every day, she works to produce milk and manure that farms use in numerous ways. To keep her powered up, her diet or ration is a vital daily deliverable for herd managers.

Working with a nutritionist or veterinarian, farms build rations that work to keep cows healthy and producing milk. However, if you’re someone who likes to be more hands-on in your feeding approach, there are ways to gather information to design a ration. It’s also helpful to know this information because feed does account for a large portion of the farm’s expense budget, especially when purchasing commodities to add to the diet.

The first thing to know about feed is what is actually in it, aka “the feed profile.” Testing hay, corn silage, soybean meal and so on at a forage laboratory provides you with the full picture of what nutrients are in the feeds that are being digested by a cow. And why is that important? Because the saying, “you are what you eat” is also applied to cows – tenfold. Without proper nutrients in the proper amounts, she cannot continue to produce high-quality milk. Milk urea nitrogen testing has shown that access of protein in a cow’s diet is reflected in her milk production. That can also be proven with other items in a diet.

Analysis performed on a feed or forage sample provides you with the equivalent of a nutritional label that you’ll find on your own food. You’ll be able to see how much of each nutrient is present and any other special request items. Many forage laboratories offer different analyses, a bit like a tasting menu where you can select specialty testing to narrow in on specific nutrients to give you additional data to fine-tune the diet further.

The results from a forage test not only form the foundation of your ration building but can also help with identifying where other factors can be affecting what you feed. The soil nutrients available, fertilizer applied to the field and heavy weather events play into the growing season for feed items like hay, corn and grains. If you operate a dairy and crop farm, you’ll be able to narrow in on where a change might need to occur or learn when something new didn’t work out for the better.


Once you have forage analysis results in hand, it’s time to start building your feed ration. Nutritionists and veterinarians have the knowledge and experience to help you create a feeding program that fits your farm’s goals and budget. It’s also helpful to stay in touch with university publications. Those provide study insights from testing and research done on different feeding plans. Rather than using your herd as guinea pigs, these papers will allow you to see what certain changes will do to cow health and milk production. Finally, ration-balancing software programs are always helpful in sorting through the complexities of diet construction.

It's also worth noting that you will need to make adjustments to a built feed ration. Think of it as a living, breathing entity that’s constantly evolving. Outside factors like the ones mentioned above, as well as different growing seasons, will create a feed that doesn’t have the same nutrients available. Frequently testing the forages you feed will alert you to when a stored forage profile changes and then allow you to make timely diet adjustments.

Additionally, your milk production goals may change. If you need a higher component level of protein, then you’ll need to mix in more commodities that give cows a boost in it. Or you’ve noticed a steady decrease in another component over time, which will mean implementing a different change to get that component back on track.

Many studies have shown the benefits of regularly testing feed. Cornell University recently posted an article about how regular forage sampling and monitoring protocols benefited a dairy farm’s productivity and efficiency. As the article’s opening paragraph states, “Failure to detect and intervene in feed composition changes during the production and delivery of dairy cattle diets increases the uncertainty of the nutrients actually delivered which, in turn, increases the risk of underfeeding or overfeeding cows.” 

Even the flavor of raw milk can be impacted by what a cow is eating. As this study pointed out, cows that graze versus ones that feed mostly indoors have been shown to have a slight difference in raw milk tastings. Both of these studies lead back to the importance of testing feed regularly to prevent changes like this from occurring and impacting a farm’s milk production.

One of the keys to keeping milk production flowing for a cow is her diet. Creating a ration with the right amount of nutrients to assist with making milk is something that every herd manager faces while caring for the herd. Analyzing individual feeds, adjusting a ration when problems pop up and consulting with a veterinarian or nutritionist are all advisable steps to take when building a good feeding program.