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Feeding Explained: Can Cows Survive On Grass Alone?



Grazing is a common part of keeping healthy, productive cows. However, it’s important to consider what livestock are grazing on and how much nutritional value it is providing them. When they are grazing, it’s likely that it’s not just “grass” that they are eating. Australia has a range of pasture species and varieties, some with high nutritional value and some that are potentially dangerous for cattle to ingest.


It’s common practice to use supplementary feeding in grazing systems, whether this is hay, silage, grain, molasses, or other feed stuffs.


Read on to find out if cows can survive on grass alone, and common methods to supplement their grazing, such as feeding out hay and silage with square or round bale hay feeders.


Can cows survive on grass?


It is possible for cattle to survive on grass grazing alone, provided the nutritional value and abundance of the grass meets their dietary requirements. While it is possible, it’s common in Australia for pasture quality to change drastically throughout the year and weather conditions to affect the accessibility and abundance of grasses.


As there are a vast range of pasture grasses, the nutritional value of grass forage will differ across the country. The nutritional requirements of cattle will also differ, from performance to lactating cows, and this can be impacted if they are foraging for grass alone.


To ensure their requirements are met and production levels are maintained, supplementary feeding is usually needed.


Nutritional requirements of cattle


The nutritional requirements of cattle will change depending on many factors, so it’s important to understand what is needed to maintain health and production at each stage of the cows life. Most cattle require a mixture of protein, energy, roughage, minerals, and other nutrients.


The nutritional needs of cattle and other livestock like sheep and goats reflect the requirements of the microbes that live in their rumens (stomachs). The role of these microbes is to break down the feed cattle eat into fatty acids, which the animal uses as energy and proteins for body function and growth.


Here’s a breakdown of the general nutritional requirements of cows:


  • Water - Water is essential for all animals and an adequate supply of good quality water is important for animal welfare. The specific amounts required will depend on the species of cattle, class of cattle, and the environment in which the stock are running.


  • Protein - Proteins are important for performance and growth, and are usually supplemented in cows diets with protein meal. Dietary protein is important for feeding the microbes in rumens, and therefore absorbed into the animal.


  • Energy - Energy is also important for growth and performance, with energy allowing the rumen microbes to grow and multiply, therefore providing energy. Most of the energy in their diets will come from cereal grains, silage, molasses and other feed stuffs.


  • Roughage - The rumen microbes also require a balance of nutrients, with roughage or fibre providing a healthy balance and ensuring digestive health. Most of the roughage they will receive will come from hay or similar feed stuffs, so it is important to provide the right roughage and give cattle easy access by feeding it out with specialty livestock feeders.


  • Minerals - There are a range of minerals that are essential to the health of cattle and maintaining rumen function. They include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sulphur. It can become easy for cattle to become deficient in certain minerals, whether due to changing growth requirements or environment impacts.


  • Buffers and rumen modifiers - Buffers are important to assist in rumen function, and can include things like sodium bicarbonate to neutralise acid in the stomach. Rumen modifiers like monensin and lasalocid may be included to improve the microbial balance in the rumen and achieve greater production benefits.


Common supplement feed


To help maintain good health and meet all of their nutritional requirements, supplementary feeding is common practice. The main supplemental feed in Australia is hay, silage, and grains.


There are a range of hays produced in Australia, including oaten hay, wheaten hay, vetch hay, lucerne hay and barley hay. These hays provide valuable roughage in cows diets, and can help to meet nutritional requirements when pastures don’t meet their needs. A high energy diet in particular may require additional roughage, such as hay, to ensure good rumen function.


Supplementary feeding is usually required in times of drought or other environmental impacts that cause pasture deficiency. In these periods, cattle cannot access or use dry pastures efficiently, so careful supplementary feeding schedules need to be put in place. This is when hay or silage become most essential to farmers.


Feed out methods


When feeding out supplementary feed stuffs, many farmers rely on specialty feeders, such as square or round bale hay feeders. These feeders ensure that cattle get consistent and easy access to ample feed, while also reducing feed wastage and money losses for farmers.


Take a look at our range of feeders online here.


Want to find a WMI Feeder near you? Take a look at our dealers across Australia that stock our feeders as part of their farm machinery sales.


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