Survival of the Fittest: Comparing the Needs of Humans and Cows
Students identify what cows and humans need to survive by exploring the physical characteristics of cows and the food, water, shelter, and other environmental needs of cows compared to their own needs. Students also examine how farmers work to meet the needs of their cows. Grades K-2
- Who am I? PowerPoint Slides
Activity 1: What Cows Eat and Drink
- Video Ask a Farmer: What do cows eat? (1:13)
- Video Ask a Farmer: How much do cows eat? (0:37)
- Who am I? PowerPoint Slides
Activity 2: How Farmers Care for Cows
- Who am I? PowerPoint Slides
- Cow Web Activity (or use slide 15 of the Who am I? PowerPoint)
- Video Are Your Cows Happy? (0:46)
- Video Ask a Farmer: How do you keep calves comfortable in the winter? (1:20)
- Video Ask a Farmer: How do you keep cows comfortable in the summer heat? (0:36)
- Video Do Cows Sleep Standing Up? (0:48)
Activity 3: Virtual Field Trip
- Fill out the Virtual Dairy Farm Tour Request (Utah/Idaho teachers), visit the website for your regional dairy council to access local resources and potential tours (all other states), or use a recorded farm tour or this link to find a recorded virtual tour for your class
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation:
- Comparison Activity
- Tape or magnets
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
byproduct: an incidental or secondary product made in the manufacture or synthesis of something else
calf: a young cow or bull
calf hutch: a shelter where calves are raised for about the first two months
cow: female cattle
hooves: the horn part on the bottom of a foot or a curved covering of horn that protects the front of an ungulate mammal’s foot
physical characteristics: a feature or quality that one can physically see
silage: a grass or other green plant that was chopped up and stored in airtight conditions to be fed to animals
udder: the mammary gland of a female cow located between their hind legs
Did You Know? (Ag Facts)
- Humans have been drinking milk from cows for thousands of years.1
- In 2019, there were 37,468 dairy farms in the United States.2
- The top milk producing states in 2019 were California, Wisconsin, Idaho, and New York.3
Background Agricultural Connections
All living things require certain items to grow, develop, and thrive in an environment. This is true for humans, animals, and plants, though their exact needs vary. Humans can provide necessary items plants and animals need to grow in an environment, and in return, humans use products from plants and animals needed for human survival.
Cow milk is an important component of a healthy diet for humans because it contains many essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A and protein.4 Understanding the needs of cows and how to optimize cow milk production is a vital component of dairy farming. One component of caring for cows is ensuring they have the food and water needed. Many dairy farms have a dairy nutritionist that helps farmers formulate a food ration to fit the cows’ needs. Cattle have a four-compartment stomach which allow them to eat, digest, and use the energy from some parts of plants that humans cannot digest (including silage).5 This is the case with 75–80% of the feed dairy cows will eat.6 Dairy cows commonly eat byproducts like cotton seeds, almond hulls, distillers grain (leftover from processing cereal grains or beer), and sugar beet pulp.7
In addition to proper nutrition, it is also important for cows to have appropriate shelter and accommodations to keep them at their preferred temperature. This shelter can start with a small calf hutch, then can vary based on geography and climate. Cows live in barns, or large lots with an open-sided barn, and have access to lay down in straw, sawdust, or sand for comfort. It is especially important for cows that are being milked to have a place like this to lie down to keep their udder clean and reduce the chance of infection.8
Farmers work to accommodate the cows' living arrangements and care to match their needs and physical characteristics. Cows' hooves need to be regularly trimmed and kept clean. Strong, healthy hooves are needed to walk to the feed, water, and milking parlor, so dairy farmers provide regular foot baths and hoof trimmings and keep the ground clean.9 Cows also prefer a slightly cooler temperature than humans (between 25°F and 65°F) and will be kept cool in the summer heat with water misters and shaded areas to lay down.10 In colder climates and wintertime, dairy cows are provided shelter from the cold weather and if needed, blankets are put on calves to keep them warm.10
Interest Approach - Engagement
- Ask the students, “What are some things you need to live or survive every day?” List the student answers on the whiteboard.
- Project Slide 1 of the Who am I? PowerPoint Slides. Explain to the students that they are going to learn about what another animal needs to survive and compare those needs to our own needs. They will be given clues about the animal. As soon as they have figured out the animal, they should stand up. Go through the next four slides to walk through the clues and let students guess.
- I can be a few different colors, but these are the most common
- This is where I like to live
- I visit a place that has these a couple times a day
- I produce a product that makes all these foods
- Ask the students to all repeat at the same time the animal that was described. That’s right, it’s a cow, and specifically a dairy cow!
Activity 1: What Cows Eat and Drink
- Refer back to the question, "What are some things you need to live or survive every day?" and the list on the board. (They likely included food and water in their list.) Explain to the students that just like humans, cows need food and water.
- Show the video Ask a Farmer: What do cows eat? to learn about the food cows eat. Show the video Ask a Farmer: How much do cows eat? to learn about how much they eat. Explain to the students that both humans and cows have a need for food. Ask the students the following questions:
- What kind of foods did you learn cows eat?
- What kind of foods do you eat?
- How are they the same or different?
- Show Slide 7 of the Who am I? PowerPoint. Ask the students if they would like to eat each of the foods as you point to the pictures. Explain that we eat a lot of different foods compared to what cows eat, but the foods we do eat provide our bodies with the nutrients needed to grow healthy and strong, just like the food cows eat helps them to grow healthy and strong.
- Explain to the students that they are going to learn a little more about some of the food cows eat (Slide 8). Ask the students if they can name the plants, helping them if needed (the animations on the slide will show one picture at a time followed by the plant's name). As you talk about each plant, ask the students to name products that come from cotton, wheat, alfalfa, and corn plants. For example, clothing, cotton balls, and denim can be named for the cotton photo. Cereals, breads, pastas, pastries, etc. can be listed for the wheat photo.
- Show Slide 9 and explain that part of a cotton plant is used to make clothes. That is the primary purpose of growing cotton. Wheat is primarily grown to be processed into flour to make products like pasta, breads, and cereals. You may have also eaten corn on the cob, corn tortillas, or corn flour in cereal. Fresh alfalfa sprouts are commonly eaten on sandwiches. When we use each of these items, there is still some of the plant that is leftover that we can’t use.
- Discuss the importance of not being wasteful and just throwing things in the garbage. We have found a really cool way to use some of our “leftovers” which are also called byproducts.
- Explain to the students that some of the byproducts from these plants look like this (Slide 10). Ask, “Who do you think can digest these byproducts?” (cows!) Ask students, “Why are cows able to digest byproducts that humans can’t digest?” Let the students try to guess the answer. If students don’t know the answer, show them Slide 11 and ask, “What are some of the differences between these two stomachs? Which is a human stomach, and which is a cow stomach?” Explain that since cows have a different digestive system with four compartments and humans have just one stomach compartment, they can eat and digest some parts of these plants that we can’t digest.
- Explain the following concepts (Slide 12).
- Cotton: After cotton is used for clothing, there is a seed byproduct that cows can eat. When it is fed to cows, it is known as cottonseed meal.
- Wheat: When wheat is processed, the byproduct of the grain not used in flour is called distillers grain.
- Alfalfa: This crop is grown, cut, and dried to make hay.
- Corn: Explain to students that unlike humans who only eat the kernels on the cob, cows can eat the entire corn stalk. The corn stalks are chopped into small pieces and kept very moist. This is called silage. Corn used for cow feed and silage is not the same variety of corn as sweet corn grown in gardens.
- Explain that cows and humans both need water to survive, but we drink different amounts. Ask the students, “How much water do you need to drink everyday?” Explain that adult humans need 8-10 cups water a day, or about 2-3 water bottles. Ask the students, “Do you think dairy cows need more or less water?” Explain that cows need 30 - 50 gallons, or about an entire bathtub of water each day.11
Activity 2: How Farmers Care for Cows
- Ask the students, “Do you think farmers like to take care of their cows and work to keep them happy?” Show the video Are Your Cows Happy? to learn about how a farmer takes care of his cows. Project Slide 14 of the Who am I? PowerPoint on the screen and explain to the students that aside from eating different things, cows and humans have different needs because they have different physical characteristics. Ask the students to take a minute to look at the two pictures and notice what is different about cow and human bodies. Allow the students to respond with some differences. Responses may include their legs, feet/hooves, hair/fur, tail, belly/stomach, shape of ear/nose/mouth, udder.
- Explain to the students that because of these differences, cows need to be taken care of in a different way than humans. Explain that they are going to do an activity to learn a little more about some of these differences. They are going to make a web of some of the physical characteristics cows have that are different from humans and learn how farmers make sure to best take care of them. Below are some options for setting up this activity.
- Print the pictures from Cow Web Activity, put them up on the whiteboard and talk through the pictures and information below as you draw lines to make the web.
- Pass out the pictures from the Cow Web Activity to various students or groups of students. Tell them to keep their picture until we talk about the physical characteristic that relates to their picture. Go through the following talking points with each of the pictures. Have students raise their pictures up if they believe their picture matches the topic. Have the students with the correct pictures bring them to the front to put on the board.
- Have the students gather in a circle with the cow in the middle. Lay out the pictures from the Cow Web Activity on the floor as you talk to them and connect the pictures with yarn.
- Use Slide 15 which has animations to walk through the steps in the below order.
- Hooves: Explain that cows have hooves that look like this (point to the picture). Have the students come up and put the correct pictures on the board (hoof trimming and hoof bath). Explain that it is important to keep cows' feet healthy. To do this, farmers regularly trim their feet, just like you have to regularly trim your nails. The cows also have access to a special foot bath that will spray off their hooves to keep them clean.
- Udders: Explain that cows need and like to have different places to lay down. These places need to be clean to keep them healthy and to prevent infections. Straw, sand, or sawdust are a few examples of bedding that can be used. Cows like these beddings to lay in and find them very comfortable. Watch the video Do cows sleep standing up? to learn how one farmer uses sand for bedding his cows.
- Hair: Explain that cows have hair and skin that help to regulate their body temperature. Cows actually like the temperature to be similar to that in the wintertime (25° - 65°F) which is similar to winter temperatures.3 Show the videos How do you keep calves comfortable in the winter? and How do you keep cows comfortable in the summer heat?Ask the students, “What were some of the things the farmers did to keep their cows warm or cool enough?” Make sure to point out the different kinds of shelters you see in the pictures—calf hutches for the calves, barns with fans, and misters for the cows. Explain that depending on the location, cows live in various shelters to keep them the most comfortable.
- Mouth/teeth: We have already talked a lot about what cows eat. Now we are going to go over part of their physical attributes that show why they can eat these foods. Show the picture of what a cow’s mouth looks like. Point out that cows have teeth on the bottom but not on the top in the front. The top front has is just hard, kind of like the top of your mouth. This helps them to eat and digest the different foods we already learned about.
Activity 3: Virtual Field Trip
- Explain to the students that one of the best ways to learn about animals is to learn from someone who helps to raise the animals because they spend time with them every day. Today we are going to learn from a farmer about what they do to take care of the cows on their farm to keep them safe, healthy, and growing strong. While we are watching the video, pay attention to what the cows need to survive (food, shelter, water, temperature) and how the farmers provide these needs for the cows. As you hear and see some of these items, list them on your activity sheet. We will go over this after the video.
- Show the recorded farm tour, recorded virtual farm tour, or sign up and join a live virtual dairy farm field trip.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
- Prior to this activity, hide the 10 pictures in the Comparison Activity document around the classroom.
- Explain to the students that they learned a lot of different things about what cows need to survive and how farmers help to take care of those needs. Now, they are going to do an activity to see what they learned and can remember.
- Divide the class into five groups and have them sit together. Remind the students that they learned about five categories of things people and animals need to live—food, water, air, shelter, and the right temperature. Assign each group a need. Tell the class that there are pictures around the classroom (Comparison Activity pictures) that represent their group’s assigned need. Each group will choose two people to find their group’s two pictures hidden in the classroom and then come back to their seat. If desired, all the groups can go at once, or you can have each group take a turn finding their pictures.
- Once the groups have returned to their seats with the pictures, ask them to share the pictures with their groups. Ask students to discuss the following questions in their group:
- How are the pictures the same? How are they different?
- Do they think cows and humans have different needs? Or are their needs the same? Explain to the students that one picture is what cows need to survive, and the other is what humans needs to survive.
- Which picture is for humans and which is for cows?
- On half of a board, draw a giant line to divide that side of the board in half so that all students can see. On one side write “Cows” and on the other write “Humans.” Choose two people from each group to bring their pictures and attach them (with tape or magnets) to the side they belong on. Ask another person from the group to explain to the class why they think their pictures go on either side.
- After completing the activity, remind students that humans and animals all need certain things to grow, live, and thrive in their environment. The things cows need are different from humans and that is why we have farmers that care for the cows and are able to help them live and grow in their environment.
Find your local dairy council and access resources about dairy farms in your area.
If your class had a live virtual tour, have the students write a thank you letter to send to the farmer.
- Estimation of human-edible and inedible materials computed from the average Midwestern lactating cow ration. Thoma et al
Suggested Companion Resources
- Better Butter
- Chuck's Ice Cream Wish (Tales of the Dairy Godmother)
- Extra Cheese, Please!
- Kiss the Cow!
- Let's Make Butter
- Make Mine Ice Cream
- Milk Comes From a Cow?
- The Cow in Patrick O'Shanahan's Kitchen
- The Milk Makers
- Dairy Reader
- Biotech Cheese Kit
- Dairy in the Mountain West: Our Family of Farmers
- From Moo to You Video
- Make Mine Milk
- Moo 2 You DVD
- NMSU Field Trip: Milk
- The Journey of Milk
- Why Can a Cow Eat Grass? Video
- Discover Dairy