Higher milk components and lower vet bills. Those are two benefits Bob and Karyn Schauf have reaped after switching their milking herd's diet from straight alfalfa to alfalfa-grass mixtures.

“The cows are in better health and there's less stress in the barn. Overall, we're happier and the cows are, too,” says Bob Schauf of Indianhead Holsteins, Barron, WI.

Indianhead's current rolling herd average on 80 cows is 27,000 lbs of milk with a 4.0% fat test. Embryos and breeding stock from the elite herd, which is milked three times a day, are marketed nationally.

While the Schaufs had always raised some orchardgrass for dry cows, in 2001 they switched their milking herd to alfalfa-grass mixtures for agronomic and nutrition reasons.

“Here in northwestern Wisconsin, if you have a pure stand of alfalfa and get severe winterkill, you end up with nothing,” says Schauf. “The grass gives us some insurance at the same time it's boosting yields and lengthening stand life.

“We decided to take herd health more into consideration and not try to squeeze every single drop of milk out of the cows,” he adds.

“They were getting a lot of alfalfa haylage and as much protein as we could pour into them. They had borderline sore feet, wet manure and their share of displaced abomasums (DA). We decided to take a different route.”

The couple hired Tom Weaver, the technical director of Kow Consulting Association, Cuba City, WI, to revise their nutrition strategy.

The next year, they sold off most of their milkers and began repopulating the barn with fresh heifers.

“We don't get quite as much milk as we used to, but our components are higher,” Schauf says. Milk production/cow averaged 100 lbs/day before the sale vs. 96 lbs now.

“As the herd matures, I'm confident the daily production per cow will exceed 100 lbs again,” says Weaver.

With more than 1,000 acres of cropland, the Schaufs were able to experiment with different forage combinations. Nearly 400 acres are devoted to alfalfa seeded with about 20% soft-leaf fescue or festulolium.

“Those two grasses are highly digestible and palatable,” says Weaver, who provides more grass selection information at www.kowconsulting.com.

“Today's grass varieties complement alfalfa,” says Schauf. “They mature at similar times, so you can harvest both at optimum quality.”

The stands can be cut up to four times per year and harvested as dry hay, haylage or baleage. Regular forage tests show up to 22% protein.

Italian ryegrass is seeded as a cover crop with the alfalfa.

“In the last five years, we've used ryegrass rather than the old standards of oats or barley,” says the dairyman. “It really comes on quickly and makes very nice forage.

“Overall, I think our forage is terrific. We've only had one DA in the past five years and the hoof trimmer comments on how healthy our cows' feet are.”

A partial mixed ration of alfalfa-grass haylage, brown midrib corn silage, shelled corn, minerals and roasted soybeans is fed three times a day.

The Schaufs grow 150-175 acres of soybeans and have them roasted as an inexpensive way to provide protein for their cows. After harvest, beans are trucked to a neighbor and roasted for $1/bu. Each cow is fed 4 lbs of soybeans/day.

“They make great feed, fit nicely into our ration and save us from buying protein,” says Schauf.

At three other times daily, the cows are fed baleage and dry hay.

“In the overall diet, 60% of the dry matter is forage,” says Weaver. “That's a relatively high forage diet for the level of production the Schaufs are getting.”

The grass provides a good source of highly digestible fiber that helps build good rumen mat and increases cud chewing, he adds.

“Grasses aren't frowned upon in ration formulation like they used to be,” says Weaver. “In general, the entire industry is gaining a greater understanding of fiber digestibility and its benefits.”

More Midwestern dairy producers are seeding some grass with alfalfa, a practice that's common in New York, says Randy Shaver, University of Wisconsin extension dairy nutritionist.

If the strategy provides agronomic benefits, he doesn't see any drawbacks from a nutrition standpoint to feeding alfalfa-grass mixtures to milking cows — if producers get them harvested at the right time.

“But if they don't get them cut at the right maturity, the fiber content could get quite high due to the grass component,” warns Shaver. “Then they'll have to feed more grain and less forage, and that's counter to improving forage usage.”