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Dairy Farming in Wisconsin: Feeding a Herd of Milk Cows

Paul lived and worked on a dairy farm in Wisconsin during his youth. Since 2012, he has helped his sister on her farm three times.

My sister's dairy farm

My sister's dairy farm

Feeding Dairy Cattle

It is hard for the uneducated reader to imagine the variety and amount of feed that a dairy cow must consume to be a good milk producer.

In this regard, a three-week experience of working on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin was a mind-opening ordeal. Disregard your pre-conceived notion of cows only grazing on pasture grass during the spring and summer, and feeding on only hay in the fall and winter. Cows must also feed on ground grain, protein, corn silage, and costly supplements to produce a lot of milk.

This article relates to my daily experience of feeding dairy cattle on my sister's farm in America's Dairyland.

My Sister's Farm on Dutch Road

My sister and brother-in-law operate a 140-acre farm in northeastern Wisconsin near the city of Manitowoc about 40 miles southeast of Green Bay. The barn has stanchions for 40-45 milk cows and pens for about 10 calves.

There is also a separately attached shed for 10-15 heifers. Silage and haylage are stored in one of the four silos. Grain and protein are stored in granaries, and the milk produced is kept in a large bulk tank in the milk house until it is transported to a processing dairy every other day.

There are additional machine sheds for the tractors and farm equipment used to plant and harvest crops.

Feed Needed for Dairy Cattle

If a dairy cow is to maintain its weight and produce a lot of milk for the farmer, it must consume forage in the form of hay and haylage, and corn products in the form of corn silage and ground seed corn mixed with other grains like oats and added molasses.

The animal must also get additional protein in the form of soybean meal or equivalent supplements, fat from the oil in cottonseeds, calcium and phosphorous minerals, and salt.

The farmer grows as much feed as possible and purchases the rest at an astronomical cost.

Feed That Farmers Grow

1. Corn

My sister and brother-in-law, similar to many other farmers, try to grow as much corn and alfalfa as possible. Corn is planted after the last frost towards the end of May. Different varieties of seed corn will usually mature within 90-120 days.

Around the first part of September when the corn ears are soft and edible, my brother-in-law will take his corn chopper and hitch it behind a big tractor. a big wagon will be in the back of the chopper to collect the corn as it is chopped. He will then take this equipment into the cornfield and chop loads of corn silage which will be blown up into some of the four silos on the farm. After the silage starts to ferment in a few weeks, it is fed to the cattle as a tasty treat.

Any corn which remains in the fields after the silos are filled is harvested when dented and hard as seed corn. This seed corn is ground into grain for the milk cows.

2. Alfalfa

Alfalfa is another important crop grown. It is from this plant that forages are obtained. When the alfalfa starts to blossom, the farmer will pull a chopper box hooked behind a chopper and cut off the blooming plants into small pieces. Alfalfa which is cut and then allowed to dry in the fields will later be baled into hay.

3. Soybeans

My brother-in-law grows some soybeans that are used as a source of protein for cattle. They are usually harvested in October in Wisconsin.

4. Oats

Oats are grown as a grain source and are usually ground with corn into a powdery grain mixture that cattle enjoy eating.

Feed That Farmers Can Only Buy

1. Minerals

Calcium and phosphorus minerals usually make up one percent of the grain mix. My sister purchases separate bags of minerals and feed them on top of the cows' protein.

2. Cottonseeds

Twice a day my sister feeds her cattle cottonseeds so that they will get enough fat, protein, and fiber in their diet.

3. Salt

One-half to one percent of a grain mix must be salt. My sister also feeds it separately.

Primary Feed That Farmers Regularly Buy

1. Corn Silage and Hay

Many farmers can not grow enough corn and alfalfa due to drought or lack of land. If this is the case, they must purchase corn silage and hay before cows start going out to pasture at the end of May. Hay is important to a cow's diet, and most dairy cattle usually consume three percent of their body weight or around 30 pounds of forage per day.

2. Grain and Protein

Iowa State University researchers recommend that farmers feed one pound of grain for every four pounds or half-gallon of milk a cow produces. A cow that produces 60 pounds of milk each day must be fed 15 pounds of grain spread out over three times a day.

The researchers also recommend feeding soybean meals or an equivalent supplement as a source of protein. This protein stimulates feed intake and permits the efficient use of mobilized body tissue for milk production.

Process of Feeding Dairy Cattle

Dairy cattle are fed three times a day. The first feeding is usually at 6:00 A.M., a noon feeding, and then an evening feeding at around 6:00 P.M. Each feeding of milk cows, heifers, and calves usually takes one to one and one-half hours. I participated in many feedings during the week with my sister. The daily routine went as follows:

1. Loading of Haylage Into Carts and Self-unloading Feeding

During this process of feeding, haylage is automatically unloaded from a silo and blown down into self-unloading carts. The battery-equipped carts are then navigated through the mangers in front of the cows where the feed is automatically unloaded. Three cartloads of haylage are required for all of the milk cows, heifers, and calves each feeding.

2. Loading of Corn Silage Into Carts and Self-Unloading Feeding

During this process of feeding, corn silage is also automatically unloaded from a silo and blown down into self-unloading carts. The battery-equipped carts are then navigated through the mangers in front of the cows where the feed is automatically unloaded. Three cartloads of corn silage are needed for all of the livestock.

3. Loading of Grain Into Carts and Manual Feeding

The grain from a granary is automatically emptied into a small cart which my sister or brother-in-law push around to manually feed all of the animals

4. Loading of Protein Into Carts and Its Manual Feeding

Protein from another granary is loaded and fed to the livestock like the feeding of protein.

5. Feeding of Cottonseed and Mineral

After the protein is fed, a big pail of cottonseed and another of the mineral are loaded and manually fed to each milk cow. A large cup of cottonseed and mineral are given to each cow.

6. Feeding of Salt

Although I suspect salt is mixed in with the grain, my sister gives each cow a small handful of salt every evening.

7. Feeding of Hay

The final chore in the evening was the feeding of hay to all animals. Since the cows get to eat forage in the form of haylage three times a day, hay is only fed in the evening. After going up into the haymow, I threw down seven bales each evening. Six of the bales were fed to the milk cows by dividing one bale of hay among eight animals.

If a dairy farmer wants his or her cows to produce very much milk, it is necessary to feed them the same way my sister and brother-in-law do. This is good for increased milk production and beneficial for the health and nutrition of milk cows. The cost of doing this is very expensive.

Considering the farmer's price for his milk, only the big corporations engaged in agribusiness can make a profit. When there is a drought or too much rain for the crops, my sister must take out loans to buy feed.

Wagon filled with haylage

Wagon filled with haylage

My sister in front of a cart of grain

My sister in front of a cart of grain

A small cart of protein

A small cart of protein

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 17, 2014:

Peggy, Thank you very much for your great comments. I appreciate you sharing and pinning this!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 16, 2014:

I grew up in the Dairy State of Wisconsin but only recall one relative that had a small farm...nothing as large as what your sister operates. Thanks for the look at what successful dairy farming involves. Sharing and pinning this to my Wisconsin board.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 19, 2013:

Hi Angelo! I'm glad you liked this dairy farming hub. Dairy cattle do demand a lot of attention. Thank you for sharing this hub.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 19, 2013:


I'm happy you liked reading about my dairy farming experiences. Proper and optimum nutrition is so important for getting good milk production. Thanks for sharing and pinning this hub.

Angelo52 on April 18, 2013:

Interesting piece on dairy farming. Didn't know it took so much work for a glass of milk. Thumbs up and shared.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on April 18, 2013:

Paul, very interesting to read what all goes into rearing and feeding of cows for milk production. Being a former poultry breeder, I know the importance of proper and optimum nutrition for maximum production.

Voted up, interesting and shared and pinned as well.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 15, 2013:

Au fait,

I remember my dad having salt blocks for the cattle, too, when he started milking in the 50s. During the late spring and summer, the cows pastured along a creek where there also was plentiful drinking water I'm glad you like the hub, and appreciate you sharing it.

C E Clark from North Texas on March 14, 2013:

Things certainly are more complicated than when I was growing up on a small dairy farm! Our cattle had a salt block available to them and they could have however much they wanted with lots of fresh water nearby. I know we grew alfalfa, corn, and oats, but we had to buy pretty much everything else. Times have changed . . . a very interesting hub. Excellent photos. Voted up, interesting, and will share!

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on November 04, 2012:

Thanks for reading and your comments. I found out it was hard work helping my sister 6-8 hours each day. You can't take a vacation when you have to feed and milk cows.

moonlake from America on November 03, 2012:

Great hub. I always wanted a milk farm but my husband kept saying it's the hardest work there is and you can never leave cows have to be milked. Enjoyed your hub and voted up.

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on November 03, 2012:

What an amazing hub. I'm blown away with the information provided here...just a real eye opener. Your sister's farm is gorgeous and your photos are beautiful. But, what a hard line of work! I don't envy them and those winters are brutal. Rated up/U/I/A will share ...

Glad to know you've arrived back in Thailand, safe, sound and happy to be back. :)

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 21, 2012:


Thanks for reading my article, and I really appreciate your comments. It's a shame that the family farm will soon be a thing of the past. Young people don't want or can't afford the costs involved in dairy farming. The cost of feed is so high along with the price of diesel, vet bills, etc. The only people who will make money are the big corporations who have the money to invest in farming.

Suzie from Carson City on October 21, 2012: have done a wonderful job of bringing the world of dairy farming up close and those interested in an education in this subject......Being from an area loaded with and surrounded by farms of every type, I find this hub extremely interesting.

My late husband's family were dairy farmers and of course, he was raised working every inch and aspect of this farm......and our sons were able to get a good "farm" education, until the farm ultimately faded out. Very good hub, Paul..................UP+++

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for reading and your comments. This was truly a working vacation - 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the evening helping with the feeding and milking.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for reading and your very interesting comments. I'm happy you enjoyed my article.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for stopping by and your insightful comments. I remember pushing carts in below zero weather too when I was a kid. All of my sister's big carts are now battery-powered. Still, it's a big job feeding.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for reading and your great comments! I'm happy you enjoyed reading and are linking to your farming hubs.

Bill Russo from Cape Cod on October 19, 2012:

This was a great read Paul. Glad you got back to the States for a visit. Looks like it was a working vacation!

Ross Anziano from West Deptford, NJ on October 19, 2012:

Thanks for keeping the grocery store full. If I had to do all this to get a jug of moo juice, I would switch to OJ on my cereal. Very enlightening.

Doodlehead from Northern California on October 19, 2012:

Wow---the pics look like on my Dad's farm from 40 years ago. Those people still work hard. I remember when it would be below zero outside and we were pushing carts in the cold.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 19, 2012:

Of course I am quite familiar with the workings of a farm, but this is a great look at farmlife for the average reader. I enjoyed every minute of reading this great hub; will link to my farming hubs as soon as I get the chance.