Cows, like other types of cattle, have specific nutritional requirements that must be met if they are to stay healthy and produce calves or milk of good quality. However, farmers are always looking for more convenient and less expensive ways of keeping their cows fed. The cattle feed industry is large and offers a huge variety of products. Despite an overwhelming number of options, most types of cattle feed contain many of the same basic ingredients.
Grains serve as the base of most commercially produced and homemade cattle feed. The most commonly used grain in cattle feed is corn, due to its low cost and relatively high nutritional content. Soy and barley are also used to supplement corn and provide a greater variety of nutrients. Grain should be introduced into a cow's diet gradually because overconsumption can lead to health problems. Also, grain should either be rolled or cracked to reduce the amount of undigested waste.
In some cases silage, or stored grass, is substituted in part or in full for corn. Though more expensive, silage is closer to the grass that free range or grazing cows would naturally eat. This is especially beneficial for beef cattle, but it holds true for dairy cows as well. Hay, alfalfa and clover also all fall into this category.
Most commercial cattle feed includes a long list of supplements. Vitamins and minerals are added to feed to promote health and encourage growth. Likewise, antibiotics are used to prevent the onset or spread of diseases, although this is a controversial process because the antibiotics may be passed on to human consumers of the beef or milk. Finally, chemical preservatives help ensure that the feed will remain fresh.
Some feed intended for cows, though not all, contains salt. Besides enhancing flavor and therefore promoting consumption, a certain amount of salt is essential to a cow's overall health. When feed does not contain salt, the cows must be fed salt in another way, either added in the appropriate amount to the commercial feed or by providing a salt lick.