Managing Your Grass-Fed Cow
So you want a Grass-Fed Family Cow? That’s great! As you probably already know, cows are designed to be ruminants, designed by nature with stomachs that convert grass and forage into meat and milk. Feeding a cow grain is an unnatural aberration forced upon them by shortsighted farmers and agriculture policy. Of course, a grain-fed cow will produce more milk, but it will come at a high cost to the cow. However, if you have just recently bought a cow and you are looking forward to grass-fed dairy products, you really need to know a few things about managing your grass-fed cow. You can’t just take a commercial dairy cow and plop her down in any old field and expect her to perform well. You kind of have to know what you are doing. If you aren’t feeding grain, you have to be quite conscious of the nutritional needs of a cow and how to meet them without relying on corn or soybeans.
Our cows have access to pastures containing alfalfa, clover and grass.
Your family dairy cow will give a decent amount of milk when fed on grasses alone. However, be sure when you are comparing your cow to others that you are comparing apples to apples. If your cow is used to large amounts of grain, her production will fall to a more natural level as you transition her to all grass. That is perfectly natural. Learn to accept your cow’s production level for what nature intended it to be, rather than against an artificially high standard.
If you buy a cow from a commercial dairy, you will want to make the adjustment to all grasses very gradually. Yes, this means that you will have to buy a little grain for the first week or so, but don’t allow your ideological bent to get in the way of good herdsmanship. Abrupt changes in diet are incredibly stressful on cattle and you will want to make this transition as gentle as possible for your cow. Slowly reduce your cow’s grain ration by a few pounds per day. Eventually, you will be able to phase out the grain altogether.
Factors You Must Consider
Most dairy cows have been selectively bred over the past several decades to do better on grain than on grasses alone. For this reason, when you have a grass-fed cow, you have to pay particular attention to the cow’s body condition, the quality of pasture that you have, and the quality of hay that you feed.
To keep your grass-fed cow healthy on pasture, you must be aware of the quality of your pastures. To grow great grass, however, you should have great soil. Adding chemical fertilizers to your pasture won’t build the soil, it is like taking a vitamin rather than eating vegetables. It’s just not the same. You can practice intensive grazing to help improve the soil and to allow the grass a resting time between grazing periods. Also, cut down or dig out weeds that will smother out healthier grasses and legumes. Remember that just because it is green, doesn’t mean that it is a plant that will nourish your cow. Adding some clovers to your pasture will give your cow protein that she needs to stay healthy.
Learn what good quality hay looks like and don’t settle for less. Remember that your cow has to make the most of what she has because there is no grain to make up for nutritional deficiencies. While beef cows can manage on poorer quality hay, you must buy excellent hay for a dairy cow. If you don’t feed her properly, she will get extremely skinny, even while milking out a decent amount for you each day. Also, you will probably need to supplement with alfalfa. Alfalfa is a legume that packs a big nutritional punch for a cow. High in protein, most grass-fed Jerseys need a little alfalfa for about half the year or more if your fields are not high quality. You can buy alfalfa hay or alfalfa cubes to feed your cow.
Use body condition as a monitor of how well your cow is doing on the provided forage. Many milk cows will “milk off of their backs.” This means that they will continue to give a good amount of milk, even if they are not well fed. The nutrients that go into the milk will come off of their body condition. Take a photo of your cow every week or two and compare it to previous photos to help you monitor her body condition. If she’s getting too thin, you will want to help her out by giving her some intense nourishment in the form of extra alfalfa or better quality hay.
Reducing Milk Production
Sometimes a high producing dairy cow just gets thinner and thinner only on grass. If you’ve tried increasing her intake, you may want to try reducing her milk supply. Do this by leaving a little milk in her bag at each milking. Her body will stop producing quite so much milk, and hopefully she will be able to maintain condition. Eventually, you will figure out the correct balance of how much milk you can take without making her condition suffer.