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Can Cows Eat Corn? (Can They Digest It?)

You’ve heard of children of the corn, but what about cows of the corn? Throughout the warm summers, cows spend their time out in their pastures and meadows eating just about anything they can find, but what if they were to wander into a cornfield? Would they be in cow heaven or would they hate having no grass to eat?

Can Cows Eat Corn?

Cows can eat corn, but it’s usually dried corn they eat and they would never be let loose in a cornfield. Farmers supplement their cows’ diets with corn and other grains over the winter if there isn’t enough grass in the pastures for them to graze on. Corn is more energy-dense than grass and hay but it’s also more expensive.

In this article, we’ll learn about the advantages and disadvantages of corn for cattle, what effect corn has on cows and how it compares to grass, and why farmers often choose not to feed their cows corn, even if they have it available to them.

Do Cows Eat Corn?

Cows often eat corn, though only as a supplemental feed and not as their main source of food. 

One of the major advantages of farming cows is that they have minimal feeding and care requirements, being able to spend months on end out on their pastures eating grass and other freely available foliage.

During the winter when the temperature is too low for grass to grow, the pastures and grazing lands that cows feed on during summer become barren. When the cows can’t go out to pasture due to a lack of grass, farmers usually supplement their cows’ diets with hay or silage that they collect during summer, or grains like corn, oats, or barley that they buy in.

Cows love corn and grains so much that the farmer needs to regulate the amount he gives them to avoid overfeeding.

Farmers usually buy air-dried corn, since it can be stored over the whole winter without rotting, and it is slower to digest than fresh corn, reducing the risk of bloat or digestive issues in the cows.

Read More: Are Cows Omnivores, Herbivores, or Carnivores?

Why Do Cows Eat Corn?

All types of grain have some advantages and disadvantages compared to grass, and even within grains, corn has some unique advantages over other grains.

Let’s find out why farmers feed their cows corn:

1: Corn is More Energy-Dense Than Other Grains

All grain is more energy-dense than grass. Cows can get the energy they need from a smaller volume of grain than they can from grass. 

Sometimes grains like oats and corn are mixed in with hay or silage to allow the cows to forage for the corn as a form of cognitive enrichment.

Oats, corn, barley, and soy are all commonly fed to cows over the winter, but corn is even more energy dense than other grains.

Table: Energy Density Comparison of Common Grains

OatsBarleyCornWheat
Energy NEm (Mcal/kg)2.032.062.172.15

Source: North Dakota State University

2: Corn is Easier to Store than Hay or Silage

Compared to wet food like silage that needs to be kept in an air-tight silo, or dried food like hay that needs to be wrapped in plastic bales, corn is extremely easy to keep. The only thing the farmer needs to do is make sure the corn is kept dry to prevent mold.

Corn destined for cattle is usually air-dried, which makes it easier to store and greatly reduces the chance of mold.

3: Corn is Cheaper Than Some Other Feeds 

Corn is more expensive than feed that the farmer can harvest themselves (like grass, hay, and silage) however it’s still a lot cheaper than some other cattle feed options.

One crop that’s commonly fed to cattle for its high protein content is soybeans. Corn is much cheaper than soybeans and even cheaper than other grains like wheat.

Table: Price of Corn, Soy, and Wheat Comparison

CornWheatSoy
Price Per Bushel (USD)$4.24$5.48$10.90
Price Per Ton (USD)$167$201$400

Source: Chicago Mercantile Exchange (Corn | Soy | Wheat)

(Prices accurate as of January 2021)

4: Corn is Great for Fattening Cows

Corn has a high energy content but a low protein content. This means that cows who are corn-fed will build fat faster than they will build lean muscle.

This is usually desirable over winter, especially in cold conditions when cows use their fat reserves to stay warm.

According to research by North Dakota State University published in 2016, in very cold conditions cows need to up their energy intak by between 8 and 25%. High-energy foods like corn can help them consume a lot of energy without having to eat a massive volume of food.

Are There Any Disadvantages to Feeding Cows Corn?

There are no major disadvantages to feeding cows corn, but there are some important differences compared to other feeds that farmers take into consideration when deciding how to feed their animals.

1: Corn Lacks Protein Compared to Soy and Grains

There’s a reason soybeans are so commonly fed to cattle. Soy is absolutely packed with protein, which is essential to help cattle grow.

Comparatively, corn has a higher energy density but a lower protein content. Most grains like barley, wheat, and oats have more protein than corn, but less than soy. 

The advantage of corn is the high energy density it offers which makes it a great winter food supplement but not great for a complete diet or for growing calves.

2: Corn is More Expensive than Grasses

Grass-based feeds including grass, hay, and silage are all much cheaper than grains and corn, and the farmer can sometimes produce them on the farm without having to buy them in at all.

In many parts of the world where the winter climate doesn’t allow for grazing, farmers will harvest excess grass in the warm summer months, and store them. Grass can be allowed to dry and turned into hay, or stored wet and allowed to partially ferment (silage).

Conclusion

To sum up, cows can eat corn but it’s usually only given to them as a supplement to their regular grazing diet.

Corn is very energy dense compared to other foods, but lacking in protein which makes it a great option for cattle to fatten them up over the winter, but a poor option for growing cattle.