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Cool-season grasses grown with alfalfa mixes

Harvesting grass hay
Photo 1: Harvesting grass hay. Photo: Charma Comer, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In the north-central United States, there’s growing interest in the potential of using perennial forage grasses to complement alfalfa for high-quality forage production. Forage mixtures of alfalfa with perennial cool-season grasses offer whole-system (i.e., soil, crop and livestock) advantages over alfalfa monocultures.

Research about neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility shows many benefits to feeding ruminants grasses. However, there’s a lack of data on the yield and forage quality potential of alfalfa-grass mixtures with modern grass varieties and harvest management.

Research: Yield and forage quality

To better understand alfalfa-grass mixtures, researchers assessed forage yield, quality and species compatibility of alfalfa-grass mixtures vs. alfalfa monocultures on Minnesota farms. For more than eight years, researchers established stands and conducted harvests and collected and analyzed data.

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Results

Meadow fescue and orchardgrass

Meadow fescue’s yields and forage quality meet or exceed other cool-season grasses and make it comparable to alfalfa. This cool-season grass is a viable forage choice for alfalfa-grass mixtures.

For lactating cow forage, the mixture of alfalfa with meadow fescue and tall fescue resulted in higher yields and higher-quality forage compared to alfalfa alone. In addition, it appeared to tolerate the cutting intensity of a four-cut system.

Meadow fescue and improved orchardgrass varieties also performed well.

Other grasses

The trial showed smooth bromegrass, meadow brome and timothy can yield well, especially in spring, but may not tolerate a four-cut system as well. They’re better suited to a two- or three-cut system and also do well in a managed pasture system.

Bromegrasses can also be used in dry cow and heifer diets at a more mature stage by using different cutting strategies for some fields and even pastures.

Management strategies

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Jim Paulson, former Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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