Matt Beckerink wants the silage for his high-producing dairy cows to be consistent, and alfalfa doesn't do well on some of his fields. That's the biggest reason he makes haylage from 800 acres of just one crop, and it's a grass.

“It's all grass from top to bottom, and it's all the same,” he says of his bunkers.

Beckerink, of Findley Lake,NY, milks about 980 cows with a 28,000-lb rolling herd average. His milking ration is 55-56% forage dry matter, of which 60-70% is corn silage and 30-40% is grass.

He used to grow alfalfa, clover and grass for haylage, but switched to all grass eight or nine years ago, and doesn't regret the decision.

“If we had all well-drained soils, we'd probably still be growing grass now that we've done it,” Beckerink says. “But a lot of people are pretty positive you have to grow alfalfa to make milk.”

He's convinced he gets more milk with grass, plus it's simpler and less-costly to grow than alfalfa.

“You don't have to have as high of a pH for grass, you don't have to spray for leafhoppers, and you can apply manure at a good rate,” says Beckerink.

In addition, his orchardgrass dries faster than alfalfa, an important advantage in that high-rainfall area, especially for the first cutting. Fields cut and laid in wide swaths in the morning often can be raked and chopped by 6 or 7 p.m.

“Hay in a day is definitely a possibility with orchardgrass,” he says. “You almost don't need sunshine if you wide-swath it.”

He grows Extend, a late-maturing orchardgrass variety, and usually gets 3½-4 tons of dry matter per acre from four cuttings. Protein ranges up to 24%. To capture maximum quality, Beckerink starts cutting just before the crop heads and finishes each cutting in about five days.

“Orchardgrass will get away from you pretty quick,” he says. “We start cutting when the head is an inch or two down in the boot. That's right where we want it; in a few days,it'll be headed out.”

The first cutting usually is ready May 12-14, before Beckerink finishes planting corn.

“We've got to park the corn planter, chop our first cutting and then finish planting corn,” he says.

Fields not fertilized with dairy manure get urea applications before each of the first three cuttings. Most are rotated out of grass after four to six years, but stands in wetter fields where Beckerink doesn't like to grow corn remain up to 10 years.

“If it's hot, cold, wet or dry, the orchardgrass does well as long as we feed it,” he says.

“It seems to be the best one because it's very hardy,” agrees Mark Einink, Beckerink's nutritionist. “They can leave the field in grass for a long time if they need to, and it also makes good use of the manure.”

Balancing a ration with grass is no more difficult than with alfalfa, according to Einink.

“You expect that the NDF levels in the diet are going to be a little bit higher, but the digestibility of that NDF is usually better than what it can be in alfalfa,” he says.

Silage protein is lower, typically running 18-21% for grass vs. 22-24% in alfalfa, Einink reports.

“I think you get a more consistent cut on grass,” he says. “If you cut it ¾" to 1½", you really get a good, consistent physical fiber source.

“I'm very happy with it,” he adds. “I've worked with it for 15 years.”

Alfalfa Beats Grass On Good Land

Cornell University research has shown that high-producing cows can produce as much milk on high-quality grass as on alfalfa, reports Larry Chase, extension dairy nutritionist at the university. But he says soil conditions dictate whether grass or alfalfa works best.

“If your soil grows alfalfa, that's probably your choice,” says Chase.“If it's marginal, then you probably need to be looking at grasses.”

Quite a bit of grass is grown in parts of New York, including the southwestern corner where Matt Beckerink farms. Heavy, poorly drained soils don't favor alfalfa production there.

“Up in the central part of the state where we've got the better land, alfalfa will by far outyield grass,as you would expect,” says Chase.

Some other grasses are just as good as orchardgrass, he adds. Working with Cornell dairy scientist Debbie Cherney and agronomist Jerry Cherney, Chase has been evaluating grasses in dairy rations for several years.

“We've looked at a lot of different grasses, and actually some of the new tall fescues look pretty good in terms of intake and performance,” says Chase.