Inside Fairmont Farm: Feeding cows is more complicated than you think

When you think of the diet of a dairy cow, you may think of vast pastures and stacks of bone-dry square bales. While some farmers still use nutrition techniques from the past, many farmers have turned to new methods, with diets balanced especially for each cow’s production level. “It depends on how many days they have been in milk and what their dietary needs are,” said Richard Hall, owner of Fairmont Farm “There’s one diet for cows that have just had their calves, and it helps them through their transition from a non milking cow to a high producing cow.”

image00Diets are changed as cows become pregnant and start to produce less milk. Once cows begin to produce more they are moved to the high-producing diet which is balanced for 100 pounds per day of milk production.  

Once off the high diet, cows are moved to Fairmont Dairy in Craftsbury.   Farm partner Tucker Purchase said, “The first diet there is balanced for 85 [pounds per day of milk] and the next one is balanced for 70 [pounds per day of milk]. We don’t want to overfeed them.”

The diet of a modern dairy cow consists of three major components: haylage, corn silage,  and concentrates. They are mixed together, making each mouthful exactly the same.

Each component is accurately weighed so that each cow gets all of the nutrients she needs.   

  • Haylage–  Haylage makes up 19 percent of Fairmont’s cows’ diet. Haylage is produced throughout the summer. Haylage begins as dry hay, being mowed down and conditioned. The big difference is moisture. Conventional dry hay is dried and tedded for days before it is dry enough to be baled. Haylage dries for a day at most before it is collected moist and stored. Haylage can be stored and fermented in wrapped bales, upright or bunker silos or silage bags.
  • Corn Silage- Corn silage accounts for 44.8 percent of Fairmont’s cows’ diet. After the first frost of the fall, corn in the fields starts to disappear. Corn is collected and chopped by a forage harvester. All of the corn plant is used when making silage, the plant is chopped into tiny pieces and shot into a truck or trailer.

image03The corn “bits” are hauled back to the farm where they are stored and fermented to make silage. Corn silage is stored in the same manner as haylage. Both corn silage and haylage have to have very little oxygen while being fermented. Richard Hall said,  “[We have to] Pack it really well so we limit any oxygen.”

  • Concentrates- Concentrates complete the diet at 36 percent of the mixture. Concentrates include cornmeal, canola and a protein grain mixture.

All of the feed components are mixed in a mixer wagon or truck mounted mixer. The feed is thoroughly mixed to make sure that each bite is the same for every cow.

I asked Richard Hall what he thought was the most important thing about feeding cows. “The most important thing is the parts we grow ourselves… If we don’t put up good feed we’re not very profitable,” said Hall.