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Cows are gentle animals that have unique and interesting characteristics. They are famous for their large stomach that features four chambers, which means that they can eat huge quantities of food. But how many pounds of food does a cow actually eat? In this article, we decided to do our best and try and answer this question.
Dry matter vs. “as is”
In order to be able to find out how much a cow eats, we have to understand the difference between dry matter and “as is”. Dry matter is forage that doesn’t contain moisture, as the name itself says “dry”. But, what makes it more confusing is the fact that the forages contain moisture and we all know that not all of them contain the same amount.
So, the first step will be to determine the forage intake on a dry matter basis and then it will be easy to convert it to an “as is” basis. To make things clearer, let’s assume that the daily dry matter intake of a group of a 1,100-pound cow eating average quality hay is 22 pounds per head. We know that the hay that they are consuming is 70% dry matter.
How can we find out how much hay per head per day on an “as is” basis will this group consume? Well, in order to figure out the answer we just have to divide the 22 pounds by .70 and the as-fed intake per head/day is 31 pounds.
This is just an example to help you understand the process better and to make it easier for you to add your own numbers. Let’s take the same group of a 1,100-pound cows but this time they are fed a ration where part of the ration consists of corn silage, and the intake per head/day on a dry matter basis is 15 pounds.
In this case, we know that the corn silage is 40% dry matter and 60% moisture. It is easy for us to determine that there are 37.5 pounds per head per day on an as-fed basis of corn silage in the diet (15 pounds/.40).
Another important aspect that determines how much feed cattle will consume is the quality of the feed. Their normal intake is 1.4 to 4.0% of their body weight daily, but this can change depending on the type of diet they have. There are studies showing that if cows are fed on a dry basis a low-quality feed, they will consume between 1.8% and 2% of their body weight.
Plus, they will consume between 2.0% and 2.2% of their body weight on a dry basis of an average quality feed. But, when it comes to high-quality feed, they will consume between 2.2% and 2.5%. So, we can clearly see that the forage quality impacts dry matter intake of cows.
When the feed quality increases, it means that there is also an increase in the TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) which leads to an increase in the amount of feed the cow can consume. Forage contains both leaves and stems, and when the quality is better, what it actually means is that it has fewer stems and more leaves.
On the other hand, when the feed quality is not very good, it is easy to imagine that there will be more stems than leaves. Since stems contain more cell wall contents which are known to be not very easy to digest, the feed will not pass through the rumen that fast. Let’s take an example to understand better how this works.
Let’s have a look at wheat straw, which is low in protein and energy – it has 4.0% crude protein and 40% TDN. So, when cows are fed wheat straw they fill their rumen and then they stop eating. This happens because wheat straw has a very low digestibility and it takes a while until it is digested and passed through the rumen before more can be consumed.
There are a few other factors that affect the cow’s dry matter intake and we will try to identify the most important ones. Environmental ones, for example, will definitely impact how much feed your cattle can eat. It is a bit similar to how we function: when it is colder we tend to eat more and when it is warmer we tend to eat less.
The same goes with the cattle, their intake can increase by up to 30% when the temperatures are colder and can decrease by 30% in hot/humid temperatures. It is believed that mud and snow can also affect their intake so that it can decrease by up to 15% in these adverse conditions.
Cows need to adapt to various weather conditions so that their body functions properly. That is why in the winter they need to eat more to keep themselves warm, and in the summer the heat will reduce their appetite. Another important factor that determines the cows’ feed intake is the amount of milk they are producing.
So, if a cow produces high amounts of milk then she will need to eat more in order to be able to achieve that. These two are closely linked together; you cannot expect a cow to produce a lot of milk if she doesn’t eat properly.
Also, a thin cow will consume more than a fleshier one, and that is why it is important to condition score your cows to know what to expect food wise. And, one of the most important factors is the reproductive status of the animal – a dry cow will eat 40 to 60% less than a lactating cow.