Cool season grasses have been making a comeback in Upper Midwest forage production. Long thought to be inferior to alfalfas, they all but disappeared from hayfields. The problem was the early-heading grasses that existed during the 60's and 70's when grasses were always still in the mix. Instead of using plant breeding techniques to improve the grasses (typically timothy, orchardgrass or brome), alfalfa planted in a monoculture became the queen of forages. However, during this same time in Europe, their livestock feeders were having trouble making these alfalfas which were doing so well over here to thrive in their cooler damp climates. They began in earnest breeding grasses that fit their needs. Obviously, late-headiness was bred into the grasses along with higher quality and yield.

Today these European-sourced grasses present improved opportunities when either grown with alfalfa or even, in some cases, when planted by themselves as they are in many areas of Europe. The greatest attribute of the cool season grass to contemporary livestock owners is the extreme digestibility of grass when harvested in a vegetative state. This high digestibility is due to the much greater levels of 5-carbon sugars (hemicellulose) when compared to alfalfa and to the lack of cross linking of these 5-carbon sugars to the lignin when compared to most corn silages.

As we are learning how much (or little) starch we really need to feed (forced lesson due to high corn cost!), the digestibility of grasses, properly balanced in the diet can play a big role in the survival of dairymen. There is no dietary requirement for starch in any dairy diet only a need for soluble carbohydrates – 6-carbon and available 5-carbon sugars from grasses can help fill this requirement very ably. Two guaranteed ways to increase the sugars in any haylage crop is 1) add grass and 2) follow Tom Kilcer’s "Haylage in a Day" harvesting format. Your Byron Seed dealer can tell you how.

By Larry Hawkins