“We want dairy cows to be healthy, high-performing animals,” Vince Watters, a certified dairy cow nutritionist with Northwest Feed Services, LLC explained about the animals he works with on a daily basis.
According to Watters, cows are the ultimate athlete. “A balanced diet maximizes milk production and efficiency in dairy cows. It’s similar to if we want to train for a marathon—a proper diet fuels us to perform better.” And just like humans, cows need vitamins, minerals, and protein (among other nutrients) to stay healthy. While many of us might not have a personal dietitian helping us meal prep each day, many cows do! Dairy farmers across Washington work closely with veterinarians and nutritionists, like Watters, to assess the needs of their herd and customize unique rations for each cow depending on their needs and stage in life.
Brothers, Jay and Larry Van Middendorp, who own O.K. Dairy in Lynden, WA have been working with Watters for years to improve the health of their 1,000 cows.
“The higher the production, the healthier the cows,” stated Larry. “A lot of different factors play into production like breeding and cow comfort, but at the end of the day nutrition is really, really important. Working with a nutritionist has been night and day for our farm. On top of the production going up, our milk quality has improved, too.”
In addition to milk quality and production, the Van Middendorps have also seen an uptick in overall health of their herd. “Proper nutrition has allowed us to have healthier, stronger calves which turn into better, healthier cows in the long run,” Jay explained.
So what does it take to keep a 4-chambered stomach satisfied?
About 100 pounds of feed a day or as O.K. Dairy likes to say, ‘cow casseroles’. Every casserole (feed ration) is packed with quality feed to fuel each cow for their specific nutritional needs. Jay and Larry weigh each ingredient that is fed, and they mix it in a TMR (Total Mixed Ration) mixer wagon to provide uniformity in every bite a cow eats. For example, a cow who is expecting a calf has a different ration than a 6-month-old calf.
Although rations vary, there are some types of feed that can usually be found in the feed bunk.
Each of these elements fill a different need for a cow—kind of like how we need to drink milk for calcium. Cows need carbohydrates for energy and they get those from the corn and corn silage. Since much of the protein they consume is passed into the milk they produce, it’s important they have a steady consumption of it which they can get through canola by-product, grass silage and soybean meal.
Vitamins and minerals make up a smaller percentage of cows’ diets, but still benefit the overall health. Calcium is a common one, and also zinc and copper which help keep the cows’ hooves healthy.
Fortunately, Washington’s fertile soil and plentiful rainfall allow for Pacific Northwest cows to eat really high-quality forages like grass silage.
“It’s amazing how cows can turn plant fiber into energy,” Vince explained. “One compartment of cows’ stomachs, the rumen, acts as a fermenter which allows them to eat things humans can’t, like grass silage.”
O.K. Dairy relies on technology, such as a robotic feed pusher, to give their cows access to fresh feed 24 hours a day. “We call him Juno; he’s one of the hardest workers on the farm,” laughed Jay.
“The Pacific Northwest is a great place to dairy,” concluded Larry. “We have access to some of the highest quality and safest feed for our cows. They (cows) love it here and so do we.”