The yield and composition of milk from Friesian cows grazing either perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) (G, ten cows) or white clover (Trifolium repens) (C, nine cows) were evaluated between d 21 and 129 post partum. The two forages, of similar digestible energy content, were the sole source of nutrients and were offered ad lib. (exp. 1). Digestion and flow at the duodenum were measured on 13 occasions in early lactation with comparable cows fitted with rumen and duodenal cannulae and grazing similar forages (exp. 2). The gross milk yield (22·2, G; 25·0, C, kg/d P < 0·05) and the yield of protein (0·66, G; 0·77, C, kg/d, P < 0·01) were higher, but the protein content was similar and the fat content lower for cows fed C compared with G. Cows fed G were heavier at the beginning of the experiment and lost weight more rapidly than cows fed C. Milk energy output, adjusted for tissue energy gain or loss, was 83·9 for cows fed C compared with 71·8 MJ/d for cows fed G (P < 0·001), during the period of tissue energy repletion (weeks 11–18). From week 18 to the end of lactation all cows from exp. 1 were fed silage ad lib. and 502 kg dry matter of concentrates. The total (305 d) difference in lactation response to grazing C compared with G was 931 1 (5657 1, C; 4726 1, G); this was a direct response during the experiment of 301 1 and a residual response of 630 1. In exp. 2, more organic matter (6·47, G; 8·01, C, kg/ d, P < 0·001), and more non-ammonia N (433, G; 575, C, g/d, P < 0·001) entered the duodenum of cows grazing C compared with G.