An extra nightly trip around the barn to feed grass hay is worth the effort, says Ken Schefers.
“After we feed the evening TMR, each cow gets 3 lbs of grass hay,” says Schefers, of Paynesville, MN. “We like feeding the grass hay separately and think it loses something if it's ground in the TMR. The cows love it — it's palatable and a good source of fiber.”
With a current rolling herd average of 27,291 lbs of milk and 1,070 lbs of fat, the Schefers' 75-cow herd is ranked No. 1 in Stearns County, Minnesota's No. 1 dairy county. It's also among the state's top herds on twice-a-day milking.
“Grass hay isn't a magic bullet, but it has helped us,” says Schefers, who farms with his wife, Julie; younger brother, Ralph; and herdsman Jesse Berg. “We think it boosts our dry matter intake and improves rumen health. And in this area it's much easier to put up high-quality grass hay than alfalfa hay because it dries faster.”
The family started feeding grass hay, which tests up to 18% protein, about 10 years ago. Their herd's production has gone up every year since, and they give grass hay some of the credit.
“A lot of producers put up good corn silage and alfalfa haylage, but they just can't get enough fiber in the ration, so they'll add some straw,” says Schefers. “It makes a lot more sense to us to put up grass hay as a good-quality fiber source.”
Jim Linn, University of Minnesota extension dairy nutritionist, concurs. “There are more nutrients in a good-quality grass hay than there are in straw,” says Linn.
Linn likes the Schefers' practice of feeding a small amount of grass separate from the TMR.
“This provides a good source of effective fiber, which helps build a good rumen mat and facilitate more cud chewing,” he says. “Plus, grass fiber digests more slowly than legume fiber, so it stays in the rumen a little longer, providing this benefit over a longer period of time than legume fiber can.
“Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of data on how best to include grass in dairy rations because research in that area has been limited in the U.S.,” Linn adds. “We generally have not had the quality in grass forage to compete with the quality in alfalfa. As a result, milk yields in studies comparing the two forages have always favored alfalfa-based rations, unless a lot of extra grain was added to the grass-based rations.”
At the Schefers farm, a TMR composed of alfalfa-grass haylage, corn silage, high-moisture corn, and custom-made protein pellets with minerals is fed three times a day. The highest-producing cows each get an extra top-dressing of protein.
“Our dry matter intake is about 55 lbs/cow/day,” says Schefers.
The forage portion of the TMR for the milking herd is about two-thirds alfalfa-grass haylage and one-third corn silage. “We try to strike a balance among the different crops because we think they complement one another.”
The forage portion of the dry cow ration is equal parts corn silage, alfalfa-grass haylage and grass hay.
If they have it available, barley silage replaces some of the alfalfa-grass haylage.
“Barley silage is in between corn silage and haylage in terms of protein and energy and it's a good source of fiber, too,” he says. “If we get it put up right, it can run 18% protein.”
The family grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, barley and grass on nearly 400 acres. One hundred acres are devoted to alfalfa, which is seeded with about 15% bromegrass and orchardgrass. Forty acres of permanent grass stands are located in low-lying, poorly drained areas.
One 10-acre field is a new seeding of low-alkaloid reed canarygrass. Another 30-acre field is a 10-year-old stand of reed canarygrass, bromegrass and timothy.
“Over time the reed canarygrass has become the dominant species in that field,” he notes. “We haven't seen the yields drop on that older stand yet, so I'm not sure what will make us finally decide to renovate it.”
Striking a balance between harvesting alfalfa and grass hay at the right times is a little tricky, says Schefers. “We've struggled a little bit with that over the years.”
The alfalfa-grass fields are harvested three times, while the grass fields are harvested twice. They make alfalfa-grass haylage first and then take their first cutting of grass hay before the middle of June. The second grass cutting is taken in August or September.
Taking just two cuttings is the best way to manage grass, according to Linn.
“If you cut a grass every 28-30 days like you do alfalfa, it will kill out by the beginning of the next year,” he says. “Grasses can't take the intensive cutting management that alfalfa does. They need to go to seed at least once a season.”
Grass hay is put up in 60-lb bales for the cows and big rounds for the young stock. Most years, the Schefers have extra to sell.
“Good-quality grass hay is one of the easiest things to sell because there's not much harvested in this area,” says Schefers. “Prices are approaching that $80-90/ton level here.”
The grass is harvested at 15-18% moisture. “With grass hay, unlike alfalfa hay, there's no heating or mold development or potential for leaf loss. The grass hay is just as fresh when we open the bale as when we put it up.”
The alfalfa-grass stands yield an average of 5 tons/acre/year compared to 3.7 tons for the grass. The grass stands are fertilized with about 60 lbs of nitrogen per cutting. Phosphorus, potassium and sulfur are applied according to soil tests.