Balanced nutrition is critical for optimal milk and meat production in cows.
The cost of cow feed makes up at least 50% of the production cost for dairy and beef cattle producers.
Therefore, choosing the best types of food is paramount in maximizing production and profit for cattle producers.
You may be confident about what hay or grass to feed your cows.
But what about supplemental snacks, like apples?
If you live at or near an apple orchard, your cows will get an apple tree or two.
Apples are not poisonous to cows in small amounts, but if fed whole and in large quantities, they can still cause potentially life-threatening digestive issues in cows. This is due to the risk of choking and acidosis.
Keep reading to learn more about the risks associated with feeding apples to cows and safer alternatives to supplement your cow’s diet.
Apple Nutrient Profile and Economic Considerations For Cows
You may have heard a friend or family member say apple seeds are poisonous.
While it is true that apple seeds can produce cyanide, it would take a significant amount of crushed apple seeds to cause any harm.
Apple pomace, or the pulp residue after apples have been crushed, has relatively low digestibility.
This is because apple fiber has a lignin content of 15.3%.
Lignin is important for structural support in plant cell walls; thus, plants with more lignin are inherently less digestible.
According to the MSU Department of Animal Science, “apple pomace has considerably less metabolizable energy (ME) content than corn silage and only serves as an energy replacement for poor to average quality hay.”
This highlights the potential economic disadvantages of feeding your cows apples.
In addition to negative financial implications, apples also have potentially negative health effects for cows.
Apples as a Choking Hazard
Whole apples are a potential choking hazard for cows.
“Choke,” or esophageal obstruction occurs when a large item gets lodged in the esophagus.
If an apple becomes lodged in a cow’s esophagus, it can prevent them from burping.
This is a potentially life-threatening emergency because it can progress to “bloat” due to abnormal gas accumulation in the gastrointestinal tract.
Other potential complications associated with choking are aspiration pneumonia (due to inhalation of food or liquid) and esophageal rupture, which is usually fatal.
Cows do not have upper incisors, meaning they have fewer teeth to assist chewing.
This makes them more likely to swallow the apple whole.
If you feed your cows apples, it is best to cut them up into smaller pieces or mash them.
This will also increase surface area, promoting faster digestion.
Apples Increase the Risk of Acidosis
Apples are considered easily fermentable carbohydrates or sugars.
Because of this, cows fed large amounts of apples are at risk of rumen acidosis, decreasing performance and production.
The rumen is the first compartment of a cow’s stomach.
Rumen acidosis is characterized by too much acid production and compromised movement in the gastrointestinal tract.
As a result, digestion is impaired, the normal bacterial population of the stomach is altered, and acid can enter the bloodstream.
Rumen acidosis can cause decreased food intake, diarrhea, weight loss, and even death in severe cases.
Safer Snack Alternatives for Cows
In general, these snacks should only be fed in moderation as any of these snacks fed in large quantities may cause digestive issues.
This is because they contain fermentable sugars, which can cause acidosis and diarrhea when fed excessively.
The below snack recommendations should be viewed as occasional treat options as they do not provide adequate balanced nutrition.
The mainstay of a cow’s diet should always be hay or grass.
Furthermore, we recommend cutting these snacks into smaller pieces to reduce the risk of choking.
- Carrots: Carrots serve as a good source of vitamin A. We recommend washing and storing carrots for 2-3 weeks before feeding to reduce the risk of diarrhea. Additionally, do not feed the leaves, as these contain nitrates.
- Bananas: Bananas are a great source of potassium and vitamins. These fresh fruits are safe to feed with any part of the banana (e.g., leaves, peels) at any stage of the fruit’s maturity. However, we recommend avoiding feeding whole bananas as this increases the risk of choking.
- Watermelons: Watermelons, which have a high water content, are clever, hydrating common fruits for cows in times of drought. They can eat the entire fruit with no ill effects!
- Pumpkins: Pumpkins provide a supplemental protein source for cows.
Further reading: Feeding cows pumpkins
Before feeding any new food to your cow, we recommend looking it up on a credible agricultural database to ensure it is not poisonous to cattle.
In general, avoid citrus fruits as these cause problems.
The Basics of Cow Anatomy and Physiology
To best understand the effects of feeding apples to cows, we must understand the basic anatomy and physiology of a cow’s digestive system.
A cow’s stomach consists of four compartments: reticulum, rumen, omasum, and abomasum.
The first three compartments are responsible for fermentation, converting food into energy.
The abomasum is the last compartment and is considered the “true stomach,” which conducts acid digestion.
Many diseases in cattle are due to the malfunction of the fermentation process.
Proper rumen fermentation requires appropriate rumen motor function.
Rumen motor function demands complex coordination of contractions, eructation (burping), regurgitation, and more.
Nutritional Requirements of Cows
Nutritional requirements vary slightly between dairy cattle and beef cattle.
But in general, the same nutritional concepts apply to all cows.
For example, all cows require a certain amount of energy for optimal performance and production.
Energy requirements and ideal nutrition composition are affected by life stage and lifestyle factors such as growth, pregnancy, lactation, and environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity.
In nutrition, we think about different types of food as providing different types and amounts of energy.
An important concept when considering different types of feed is ADF (acid detergent fiber).
The higher the ADF, the less digestible a particular food is.
Feed with lower digestible energy can result in decreased intake and, ultimately, decreased production.
The majority of feed for cattle consists of hay or grass and pasture feeding.
Cow pastures are the best way to provide cows with the needed dietary fiber and nutrients.
Dry feed and traditional feed are the bulk of what they need.
Everything else is extra.
Related: Will cattle eat bread?