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University of Minnesota Extension

Formulating dairy cow rations

Quick facts

Formulating rations provides cows with the nutrients they need to stay healthy and optimize production.

  • The basis of a cow’s diet should be high-quality forage.
  • Acid neutral detergent fiber should be at least 18 percent and neutral detergent fiber at least 28 percent of ration dry matter.
  • Balance rations to meet the nutrient requirements for each stage of lactation.
  • Added fat shouldn’t go above 7 percent of ration dry matter.
  • Include vitamins and minerals to meet the cow’s needs.
Guide to formulating dairy cow rations

The ruminant feed pyramid provides the basis for formulating rations.

  • High-quality forages and grains are the base of all diets and will support good milk production.
  • Added fats, rumen undegradable protein and other feed additives are needed by higher producing cows.

The goal of your feeding program should be:

  • To meet the cow’s nutritional needs while maintaining health.
  • To optimize milk production, milk fat and milk protein.
  • Accomplished economically.

Expressing computer ration information


Rules of thumb for formulating lactating cow rations


Nutrition Management

Feed bunk management

There should be 2 to 5 percent of feed remaining when cows are fed.

Lactating cows need 24 inches of bunk space. Close-up and recently fresh cows should have 30 inches of bunk. If feed is available at all times cows can get by with 18 inches of bunk space.

Cows eat best in the grazing positions and the bunk surface should be smooth.

Ration Formulation

When balancing rations, the reference cow should be at the 75th percentile of the herd. To calculate reference cow, take the average peak milk of older cows and add the daily average of all cows and divide by 2.

Example: Bulk tank average - 60 lbs, peak milk older cows - 86 lbs

(60 + 86) ÷ 2 = 73 lbs of milk to balance for

Two groups: Balance rations at 20 percent above average milk production of each group.

Three or more groups: Balance rations at 10 to 15 percent above average milk production of each group.

Water Intake

Cows should consume 3 to 5 pounds of water per pound of dry matter consumed.

Example: 50 lbs DM intake at 4 lbs of water/lb of milk dry matter intake

= 200 lbs of water/day or 200 ÷ 8 lb/gallon = 25 gallons

Ration Check

All rations should contain at least 1 feed from each category:

  • Forage
  • Grains
  • Protein supplements
  • Mineral
  • Salt

Authors: James Linn, former UMN Extension animal scientist; Michael Hutjens, University of Illinois; Randy Shaver, University of Wisconsin; Donald Otterby, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences;  W. Terry Howard, University of Wisconsin and Lee Kilmer, Iowa State University

Reviewed in 2021

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