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Why fully pastured cows are often healthiest and produce the best milk with the lowest somatic cell count with a small grain ration during milking rather than “100% grassfed”.
The dairy cows we see nowadays are not the same cows we see in old pictures from the 1930s.
The cows in those pictures were high-producing beef cows.
They have been selected for higher production and the self-preservation mechanism to drop that production when feed is unbalanced (i.e., too much grain OR too much grass/hay), has been bred out of them.
Cows are fermentation vats which means they depend on microbes and beneficial bacteria to digest forage and break down forage in their gut.
This digestive fermentation allows a cow to absorb the nutrients and produce milk and meat as well as calves and breed back (get pregnant).
Microbes and beneficial bacteria need starch (energy) to multiply to digest large amounts of protein or too much lignin.
Too much protein comes from too much short grass or too high a protein hay.
Lignin comes from too-mature hay, or too-tall pasture.
Can Pastured Cows Get Too Much Grass?
Does this mean a cow can actually get too much grass or hay?
Yes, it does.
Cows on too much protein (short grass with very little energy) drown the microbes in their guts resulting in very little forage being digested and utilized.
This can result in a situation where the cow is more prone to mastitis which may go undetected. Low-grade infection can trigger somatic cell counts in the milk to rise, a risk to consumer health.
This situation can also create high nitrogen (urea) in the bloodstream. The results are a negative effect on body weight, milk production, milk quality, and breedability because the cows are actually starving even though they constantly eat.
Cows on too much old hay do not have the energy to digest the woody fiber of the hay and end up losing weight and/or reduced milk production and do not breed back because, once again, they are starving even though they constantly eat.
Cows only take so many mouthfuls a day, give or take a few minutes.
They meet their needs or lose body weight, and/or milk until they die prematurely.
Forms of Starch
Balanced grass can have starch, and proper protein levels to match that starch, but that only happens on grass for a very short period (hours), unless one can control water and height.
So starch (energy) must be supplied to the cow in a form of grain, in an appropriate amount to meet the energy needs of the cow given the other forage she is eating.
A good dairyman knows this and will not withhold the grain when it is necessary for the cow’s health.
The more balanced the forage and grass she is eating the less grain she needs and the more nutrient dense the milk is.
However our soils are very much out of balance, so incomplete proteins are made which go into the blood stream quicker if microbes and beneficial bacteria are not in sufficient number to utilize the protein.
Small Amounts of Grain Compensate for Soil
So, grain has been fed to make up for the lack of soil mineralization and balanced forage as well as to meet a milking cow’s energy needs.
Soil has been degraded to the point that farmers have problems holding on to the right amount of energy-to-protein ratios in our pasture.
Cows cannot travel to maintain the balance of energy to protein (new grazing grounds) as their Bison cousins did.
Humans are servants to cows until the consumer and producers reestablish the soil and forage balance.
The grain versus grass debate is not black and white.
Both are a valuable part of a cow’s diet but not a complete diet in and of themselves.
The principles of the cow are what they are.
It is not fair or wise to put the burden of unrealistic consumer choices on an animal or a farmer in an unsustainable way.
This is a big subject, and so much of the entire notion of proper feeding has to do with whatever area of the country in which you are raising cattle. In my area, we have long, hard winters (as a rule) so there is no choice but to do some grain feeding. Even if feeding supplemental hay and alfalfa, some grain is likely still going to be necessary before spring.
This is much the same with sustaining the soil. Each area of the country has different specific needs. For instance, in my area we are naturally abundant in selenium, so in placing minerals into the local soils, one must know what is needed in any given area. On the other hand, cattle can use a salt/mineral lick and replace some of the lost minerals which works well in winter months. I’m talking mostly about beef cattle here, because I’ve never been around dairy cattle. My paternal family has been in the hereford raising business since the latter part of the 1800’s. It was a century farm in 1987. Naturally produced manure is the only thing I ever remember my dad using around the place!
Hi Sarah. So far I am not feeling experinced or knowledgeable enough to risk taking my goats off of all grain. In the meantime I want to do the best I can for them but several people had questions about what type of grain, how much, as well as about phytotoxins and GMOs. There are organic grains out there but they are still highly processed. I am going to switch to a mix which I will blend myself composed of 2/3 organic barley 1/3 organic oats soaked in water and apple cider vinegar with some added timothy hay pellets and black oil sunflower seeds. This gets out the corn, soy and GMOs out and the soaking reduces the phytotoxins. Each milker gets about a pound per milking.
I would love to hear Mark McAfee’s thoughts regarding this subject seeing as Organic Pasture’s milk is 100% grass fed and they are a very reputable company. I have dairy goats which consume very little organic grain in their diet. I know of a local farmer who has been raising healthy dairy goats succesfully for 10 years off grain and he considers himself a grass farmer. Dairy goats are even harder to raise than cows w/o grain. I have learned alot from him and am considering taking my dairy goats completely off grain (except for grain in the form of hay) as I am just not convinced yet that they need grain nor that it is healthy for them being that it is not a natural part of theri diet. We’re eating Nourishing Traditions style because we believe eating as our ancestors did is what our bodie’s evolved on and therefore is the best thing for us. So when it comes to raising animals it makes the most sense to me to feed them a diet as close to what they would be eating in the wild. Yes our soil is not the same therefore our browse is not the same but there is alot we can do to bring the health back to out pastures as well as supplement as naturally as possible with the things our animal’s diets are lacking. My local farmer friend feeds his goats 3 grain hay in the winter whenever he can and especially barley which helps to provide them with the extra calories they need as well as is a much more natural source for grain. I’m am still on the fence about it which is why I haven’t taken my goats completely off grain but I feel there is alot you can do to improve your pasture to provide your animals with the nutrition they need as well as knowing what your pasture is lacking so you can provide your animals with the proper supplements. I would love to hear more from dairy farmers who are exclusively grass feeding and have been doing it for a decade or more. Thanks for this wonderful discussion!
Hi Tracey, I am very interested in your journey as a goat farmer .. if you do eventually take your goats off all grain I would be interested in having your write this up to be posted on this blog as a helpful testament to others on a similar journey.
Sorry to be such a late-comer to this interesting conversation! My husband and I are new farmers on a very old depleted farm. We want to eventually market 100% grassfed meats, but our soil needs LOTS of help before we can do this succcessfully. We’re using the Albrecht method to bring the fertility back – check out our blog to see the steps we’re taking and why. We believe the fertility can come back – it’s just gonna take time and lots of thoughtful effort.
Personally, I think Isaac above is just plain wrong when he said “Animal grazing can be managed in a way that it improves the grass quality and quantity and auto fertilizes the soil without tilling or adding any fertilizer, not even natural compost.” This is fantasy. Take Calcium, for example. It’s one of the most important soil nutrients, and is in very short supply on many farms. If calcium is not in the soil, it won’t be in the grass, and won’t be in the manure. Organic matter is carbon, not calcium. And yes, Polyface farm has been brought back from the brink. But, Polyface also has had lots of inputs over the years – a good thing!
Wightman and others have mentioned that consumers need to get more educated on the real needs of our soils and animals. Subscribing to Acres USA or googling William Albrecht are good places to start.
Great post! We, CFC, met in Minnesota again tonight in preparation for your and Mark McAfee’s arrival next week….and I have to tell you, we are excited, stoked and fired up…AND things are happening here in MN!!! Tickets are selling, word is getting out, fundraisers are gelling, silent auction items are coming in, there are meetings with legislators, MN Dept of Ag, and dense food dinner planning….it has been a blast!! We are looking forward to your visit, wisdom and direction!!
Despite the good will of everyone, this thread can be quite confusing. As I understand it, the great grass vs grain debate is whether beef animals should be finished on grass or in a feedlot on grain, at least to most people, but that does not seem to be the issue here.
Before I comment further, I would like some clarification from Sarah and/or Tim :
1. Is the subject of this post limited to dairy cattle, or does it also include beef cattle?
2. What kind of grain are you saying should be fed to cattle? Corn? Soy? Barley? GMO free? Please clarify what you mean by “grain”.
3. What percentage of the animal’s feed should be grain?
4. Is the goal to have all cattle 100 percent grassfed, with some grain as a crutch until the soil is improved?
I have a lot more to say, but an answer to these questions should prevent me from making mistakes and adding to the confusion. ;
Dr. Catherine Rott
Good points, Stanley. I would add that the issue about the grains being mycotoxin infested as not been addressed as well. I would respectfully add that to this comment for discussion as well.
Outstanding post Tim. It is important for folks to understand that this is not necessarily an either/or issue. Thanks for the nuanced information.
Thank you Tim!
I live in Florida as well, and I keep dairy goats and cows. We are not 100% grassfed, because our land was very farmed out years ago. Although we feed free-choice kelp, sea salt and a mineral mix with dolomite, sulfur and copper, we couldn’t possibly keep the animals in good health without some supplemental grain.
I think one thing to make clear is that corn in particular is not a good grain for ruminants. It does disrupt the rumen and cause acidosis, but Pat Colby, Gary Zimmer and Jerry Brunetti all say that soaked oats and barley do not have the same affects as corn. Pat Colby does include some alfalfa in her recommended rations for both dairy cows and goats, but not very much, an never as pellets, which she says are not good for the rumen.
A quote I really like from Gary Zimmer: “I’m all in favor of 100% grassfed, but I can’t recommend eating starving cattle.”
We feed oats and barley soaked overnight with water and raw apple cider vinegar. Our first goats came from a good conventional farm where they were fed on peanut hay and sweet feed with cracked corn, and we have seen their coats grow sleeker and a great improvement in their general health on our ration or soaked oats and barley, forage and hay.
Pavil, The Uber Noob
So, a sustainable, nutrient dense food supply boils down to soil ecology.
Pavil, I agree that is a huge part of it, with the good news being that the soil ecology can be greatly improved through natural means. I know farmers who have done it.
But the breed of the animal, their genetics, and the kind plant are also important.