University forage specialists have been urging graziers to put cows on alfalfa for years — and not just after a hard frost.

Graziers, however, worry about bloat and cringe at the thought of that high-value crop getting trampled to the ground.

Using alfalfa as the dominant forage has been hard for Phillip Witmer, too. But a 20,000-lb milk production average is sweet consolation.

“When we think of pasture, we see cows out in wet weather, stomping it up,” says Witmer, who milks 140 cows on 180 acres near Dayton, VA. “People see that in their alfalfa fields and it hurts. I try to preserve my alfalfa as well as possible, but I constantly have to remember that I seeded it to graze it.”

A relative newcomer — Witmer has grazed his herd for six years — his herd average rose from 15,000 lbs the first year to nearly 21,000 in 2001 and 2002. Last year brought wet spring weather, waterlogged soils and less alfalfa, so his production dropped to 18,000 lbs/cow.

Nevertheless, the 2003 American Forage and Grassland Council forage spokesperson credits grazed alfalfa for its high quality; consistent, season-long production; and drought tolerance.

He seeded alfalfa and orchardgrass for his first herd back in 1997. Since then, he has experimented with alfalfa and matua and likes what matua brings to the combination.

“I am using alfalfa as my base forage for grazing. Then I seed a mixture to try to prevent bloat.” As the alfalfa thins, the matua reseeds itself and thickens the stand, extending its life, he adds.

He's seen milk production jump as much as 5 lbs from cows that move to an alfalfa-dominant, younger stand from an older stand of mainly matua.

“It also tends to be higher-producing than most grasses. I can get 5-6 tons/acre of alfalfa, but with a grass we're probably looking at 4 tons.”

Alfalfa with matua, however, is a difficult crop to graze, Witmer admits.

“Alfalfa is not as grazing-friendly as sod-forming grasses, which are a lot more forgiving. But the way I see it, the cost of making and storing alfalfa hay is about 50% of the cost of production of that alfalfa. So even if I lost as much as 50% productivity, I haven't lost any ground if I graze it instead of machine-harvest it.”

Witmer won't see such a loss, though, because he's careful about when and where his cows graze.

He likes to put cows on a stand when it's 14-18" tall. “But it depends on the weather and how much rainfall we've had. If it's very wet, I won't have the cows on my best fields. I'll have them on older stands that I'm willing to make some sacrifices on. And I do have 20 acres that I use as a winter feeding area. Every year I reseed that to annual ryegrass. I use that more as a sacrifice area.”

Although alfalfa is more drought-tolerant than the normally grazed grasses, Witmer also irrigates. He's fortunate to have a spring-fed stream just 1,000' from the farm.

“With alfalfa, the quality is pretty consistent throughout the year. So I can irrigate it and, when we get into drier weather, keep it growing. I can provide feed for my cows throughout the grazing season without having to buy supplemental forage.”

The only supplementation during the grazing season is 16 lbs/cow/day of grain in the parlor.

Right now he's experimenting with varieties with deeper-set crowns, hoping they won't get damaged by cows or tractors.

He's also considered switching from Holsteins to a smaller breed that would do less stand damage and could better stand heat. But he probably would lose milk production and wouldn't get as much for his surplus cows.

About 10-15% of the herd is culled every year. Another 20%, those that didn't breed back fast enough, are sold as replacements to other dairymen.

“I'm seasonally calving; I'm trying to always have my cows calve in the spring so their peak of lactation corresponds with the peak forage growth of the year.”

Cows calve from late February to April. Those that breed back late are sold shortly after they freshen.

“The cow-friendly environment in grazing lets me market these cows as replacements, instead of burned out, broken-down cull cows,” Witmer comments.