What Do Cows Eat Besides Grass? Beef vs Dairy Cows’ Diet

what do cows eat beside grass

Just like humans, cows need a tasty, balanced, nutritious diet to stay healthy and happy. As long as farmers are fully aware of these issues and have a wise choice of healthy food for their cattle, their health and welfare will be improved. Thus, they might produce more high-quality milk.

So, what do cows eat to maintain that high performance? Let’s learn about cow’s diet – the “dos” and “don’t” in the daily diet of cows on a dairy farm.

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What Do Cows Eat Naturally?

Cows in the wild eat grass because they are herbivores. But the answer isn’t that simple!

While humans need a well-balanced diet of various foods, cows just need grass to keep them healthy all year long. In other words, pasture grass is the best food for cows. They are ruminants and have a different digestive system from humans. Their four-chamber stomach allows them to chew just a little before chewing.

The rumen is the main place where grass and other types of food are processed after swallowing. It is also the largest chamber in cows’ stomachs, with millions of tiny organisms to help cows break down cellulose & hemicellulose and absorb the nutrients they need from the grass. When the rumen is full, cows often lie down and rechew that food (or chew their cud).

Not only nutritious, but the grass is also an inexpensive natural type of food. Therefore, cattle farms or ranchers often choose it as an ideal part of cows’ daily diet.

Cows in the wild eat grass

What Do Cows Eat Besides Grass?

Although grass is suitable for cows naturally, it doesn’t always provide sufficient nutrients for the daily demand of cows (for example, in long cold winter days or arid spring or summer). Therefore, you should provide your cattle with other types of food and supplements to keep them active and healthy.

Most cows’ diet consists of the following types of food:

1. Dry feed (hay)

what is hay made of

You should ensure to maintain enough hay for your cows. There are three most popular hay varieties, including Timothy, Bermuda, and orchard grass. Besides, hays are also classified into the first cut or second cut – the cutting indicates when the hay is cut.

In some regions, the first cut of Timothy hay is coarser, richer, more expensive, and better for mature cows with normal health conditions. In contrast, its second cut is for calves, pregnant, nursing cows, or those with dental problems.

To know the available types of hay and the quality of each hay item in your area, you should discuss with your local hay suppliers or join hay auctions for more details.

Dry feed is often cut and rolled into hay bales. It is a convenient food that should always be available on your farm. Since it is dry, you can store it and feed your cows on cold winter days when fresh food is rare or on rainy days when you can’t go out to buy new food for your cattle.

2. Wet feed (silage)

Besides dry feed, wet feed (or silage), is also a healthy type of food that you can add to your cows’ daily routine.

Wet feed is a complex mixture of fermented barley, alfalfa, and/or oats. It is often mixed with dry hay, minerals, vitamins, and other supplements to create a “ration.” The amount of each ingredient in this ration may be adjusted based on the advice of a nutritionist or veterinarian.

3. Grain

Grain plays less than one-quarter in dairy cows’ daily diet. There are some types of grain that are grown specifically to serve cows, while others are recycled after food/beverage production (for example, barley that has been used previously to brew beer).

4. Barley

Barley grain

Barley is one of the most favorite and popular foods for cows, making it available in millions of cattle farms worldwide.

Barley contains many precious nutrients for the body-building of cows, like crude protein, calcium, copper, iron, selenium, zinc, etc. Therefore, it is a great add-up to your cows’ daily diet.

5. Leftover products

almond hulls

The small remaining part of cows’ diet is leftover products. For example, almond hulls and canola meal (the leftovers of canola oil) or citrus pulp (the leftovers of orange juice or beverages). These wasted products are appropriate for cows since their digestive system can absorb the energy and nutrients in those leftovers.

6. Salt licks

Salt licks

Some dairy farmers might wonder, “why do cows eat salt?” Sale licks are electrolytes because they contain essential nutrients for cows, like vitamin D or calcium.

These minerals help retain a healthy development for muscle and proper digestion for dairy cows. Besides, they also play a vital part in maintaining a stable blood flow for them.

Notice: Avoid these!

There are two types of food you should not feed your mature cows – alfalfa and commercial grain.

  • Alfalfa

While alfalfa, in pastures, hays, or pellets, is acceptable to feed pregnant, nursing cows, calves, or underweight cows, it is not recommended for adult male cows.

First, alfalfa can result in blockage from urinary calculi.

Second, alfalfa and other types of clove can boost the development of bloat – which is fatal in cows.

  • Commercial grain

Commercial grain (for example, sweet feed) is prohibited for mature cows. A vast amount of grain can lead to obesity or digestive/ urinary problems for them.

However, you can feed this food to calf starters or calves to maintain their healthy rumen development before switching to solid adult food.

Differences Between Dairy & Beef Cattle Diet

Both dairy and beef cattle can gain essential nutrients from high pasture grass. But these two cattle types have some differences in their daily diet.

Dairy cattle diet

dairy cow

Dairy cows’ daily diet mainly contains dry forage (corn or barley) or wet forage (alfalfa, hay, straw). The remaining part of their diet is the concentrates, providing protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates for optimum growth and milk production.

Dairy farmers should also add a small amount of prebiotics and probiotics to help cows digest better and minimize their stomach discomfort.

Beef cattle diet

beef cow

Unlike dairy cows, beef cows need a balanced diet of grains, hays, and supplemental minerals. They can gain protein from various types of plants, as well as nutrients and minerals from hays.

When they become adult cows, their diet should contain more fat to meet excellent meat quality. To harvest premium-grade types of steaks, beef cattle are eventually fed with a bread-based diet.

On some beef farms, farmers also provide cows with solid block minerals to help them absorb valuable ingredients.

Foods For Calves & Older Cows

Baby cattle calves


At first 24 hours after being born, baby cows are fed colostrum (or first mother’s milk) to get antibodies, minerals, and nutrients for a healthy start. From 2 to 3 months old, they will drink milk from their mother cows or milk replacer (similar to baby formula).

When do they start eating grass? Young calves can switch to a grass, grain, hay, and water diet when they have finished their weaning period. Since calves are picky like kids, grains are often coated with molasses to make them sweeter and tasty.

Older cows

As cows get older, they might have dental issues, like weak teeth or breaking teeth). Thus, tall or tough pasture grass or hay might be challenging for them.

  • You should frequently check your senior cows’ health to ensure they enjoy their food and get enough daily nutrient and energy intake.
  • You can offer them hay pellets and beef pulps with high moisture or pulp and chopped hays that don’t require too much effort for chewing.
  • Another problem of older cows is that they are easily obese if they are still fed the same diet with a lower activity level. You can switch to a diet with higher protein to help them maintain a healthy weight. Besides, you should monitor their weight to ensure that the new diet is adequate.
  • Like older people, older cows can lack vitamins or minerals due to their low eating behavior and aging digestive system. So besides food, you should ask your local vet’s guidance for cow-safe vitamin and mineral supplements.

How Do Cows Eat Their Food?

Cows are picky eaters, and they might pick only their favorite food (like grain), which can lead to nutrient deficiency.

Therefore, farmers create the cow TMR (total mixed ration) by mixing together the wet & dry feed, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, and supplements. By doing this, cows can get a well-balanced meal in every bite.


1. What do cows eat as a treat?

An adequate amount of good treats can make cows happy and cooperate during a health treatment process. Apples, carrots, bananas (with peels or not), oats, etc., are some healthy treats for your cattle.

However, you should cut treats into small pieces so that they can chew easily. And don’t feed them with too many treats because it can lead to bloating, GI upset, or excessive weight gains in cows.

Read our related article, Can Chickens Eat Carrots Raw? Learn if carrots are good for your flock to eat and how to safely feed chickens carrots and carrot tops!

2. Can cows eat chocolate?

Cows can eat chocolates. This sweet food helps enhance the meat’s quality and taste, especially in some expensive types of beef like Wagyu beef. You can mix chocolate with cow food to feed cows. This mixture is used for calves 30 months old or older.

3. Can cows eat cabbage?

Cows can eat cabbage without any harmful effects on their health. This vegetable is popular around the world and accessible for all farmers.

Cabbage contains essential nutrients for cows, including 86-140g dry matter/kilogram, 137-280g crude protein, 186gr crude fiber, 10.2MJ energy, and 84% digestible nutrients.

However, cabbage should not exceed 50% of their daily diet, or your cattle might suffer from some health troubles. You should mix this vegetable with other appropriate cow food to give them a well-balanced diet.

4. Can cows eat garlic?

Cows can consume a small portion of garlic (around 2-4 oz per head) to avoid flies from annoying them.

Garlic is safe, natural, and compatible with all diets of cows. The strong garlic odor on cows’ skin and breath keeps cows away from these insects without spending expensive or toxic chemicals.

5. Can cows eat onions?

Although cows can eat onions, they can have trouble with the toxicity in onions (Allium cepa). Too many cull onions in beef cattle’ diet can result in hemolytic anemia or even acute death.

Read More: Can My Chickens Eat Onions? And will they give your eggs a bad taste? 

6. Can a cow eat bread?

Bread or other commercial bakery leftovers are a great type of food for beef cows. Feeding cows with bread helps to produce premium-grade steaks.

However, you should limit its feeding size since processed grain works like carbohydrates in rations. It can quickly cause bloating in cows if you feed them with an excessive amount of bread.

Read More: Can Chickens Eat Bread Crumbs? Find out if chickens can eat bread, crust, and moldy bread in this guide!

7. Do cows eat lettuce?

Cows can eat lettuce if they feel hungry. This fresh veggie can be used as a tasty item in their daily water intake.

8. Do cows eat potatoes?

Cows can safely eat potatoes. However, potatoes should be treated as a grain with high moisture, not a forage substitute.

Since potatoes contain little protein and fiber, feeding them in an increased amount can lead to poor performance and provide efficiency in these animals.

Read our related article, Can Chickens Eat Potatoes Skins? Here’s how to feed potatoes to your chickens!

9. Is pineapple good for cows?

Cows can eat pineapples as a healthy snack to get more vitamins, water, fats, carbohydrates, potassium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. However, since pineapples have a lot of sugar, farmers should give cows a moderate volume of this sweet fruit.

Read our related article, Can Chickens Eat Pineapple Scaps? Learn about the fruits chickens can eat and if pineapples are good for backyard birds!

10. Can cows digest meat?

Although cows can digest a petite amount of meat from chickens and chicken eggs, they can be threatened if they eat a large dose of meat continually.

Since their digestive systems are biologically designed to consume mainly plant food, they can have troubles like organ malfunction or growth abnormalities if they eat too much meat.

Read more: What do cows drink?

Final Words 

Ensuring your cows grow happily and healthily is crucial for all farmers. And it’s impossible if you maintain a well-balanced daily diet for them.

After answering the question “What do cows eat?” you will have more valuable information in choosing food and treats for cows or adjusting their daily diet to improve the milk or beef production for your farm.

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