Managing Fescue in the 21st Century

Baby Jim in Living Color

Baby Jim

Photo courtesy of The Old Cowboy Archives

Reconsideration of an Old Idea


One of the hazards of living a long time is that people tend to become confident in their accumulated knowledge, and subsequently complacent and resistant to change.  I am as subject to this as anyone else.  Sometimes I hear of new ideas and summarily dismiss them because they do not fit my accumulated conventional wisdom.

Occasionally, I have my belief system successfully challenged.  Such an event has recently occurred at the 2016 Virginia forage and grassland council winter meetings.

The topic of the meeting was Understanding and Managing Tall Fescue in Grazing Systems.

I have been dealing with tall fescue for most of my life.  For the last 30 years or so I have been trying to manage the good parts of tall fescue and also trying to manage around the problems of tall fescue, and thought I had a pretty good understanding of how to manage around them.

Like so many others, I thought I was doing okay.  I was not losing ears to frostbite.  I was not loosing tail switches.  I had never even seen a case of fescue foot but knew it was horrible.  My cows were breeding back.  My calves were pretty vigorous and with thirty years of selection for growth and performance they would step on the scale pretty hard.

Yes, in the summer time they would all be in the pond (until we fenced the cattle out of the ponds and streams for the environmental good).  After that they would fort up in the day time in the woods and create mud wallows like hogs.  I thought this was normal.  I had seen black cattle avoid summer sunshine all of my life.  One of my concerns to this day is that when we fence cattle out of streams we are often fencing them out of shade as well.

I could identify the couple of poor doers every year who did not shed off and who seemed to suffer more than their herd mates.  Eventually those rough haired and poor doing cattle would usually sort themselves out and leave the herd.  On that basis I was pretty sure there was a genetic component to dealing with fescue toxicity.  This genetic component was identified a few years ago but testing was not commercially available.

What I did not know was how much the entire herd was having performance squashed by the effects of fescue toxicity.  At the VFGC winter meetings the leading researchers on the topic from across the Fescue Belt, presented side by side comparison of the animal performance stolen by the toxicity.  Things like calving percentage, milking ability, direct weaning weights, rebreeding conception, depressed calf gain are estimated to cost cattle producers in the Fescue Belt over a BILLION dollars per year.  As the silly tee vee commercial says, part of that “is my money and I want it now.”

The further news is that the toxicity is not just in the seed heads.  We have been advised to clip seed heads for years to reduce the problem.  This is still a valid strategy.  But the endophyte in fescue that causes the problem is a completely symbiotic life form dependent on the fescue plant.  This endophyte does not have reproductive capability outside of the fescue plant.  The only way to spread the endophyte is to spread the infected fescue.  The symbiosis is complete because the thing that gives fescue its persistence and strength and character is the endophyte inside the plant.  Management that makes the fescue stronger makes the endophyte stronger and anything that makes the endophyte stronger makes the fescue more toxic.  But while the endophyte can only be spread by sowing infected seed, the endophyte lives in all parts of the plant, seed, stems and leaves.

With all that said, why on earth do we continue to have fescue as a part of our livestock programs?  There are several reasons.

  1. It is the hardiest forage plant (Because of the endophyte).
  2. Animals select for it by grazing all other more palatable plants in preference.
  3. It has tremendous growth and production.
  4. It is the preferred forage for stockpiling and winter grazing in well managed grazing systems.
  5. It will survive overstocking and mismanagement better than any other forage species. This is a critical reason why it is so dominant.  It survives the poor management.
  6. Fescue and Kudzu are two of the best conservation land covers that are available to us to stem and prevent erosion and to heal mismanaged land. Kudzu is at least limited by its intolerance to cold weather.  Fescue is not so constrained.
  7. Producers have voted by their actions that they are more concerned with the hardiness and persistence of the fescue than they are with the problems associated with the fescue.
  8. A fear that time and money spent renovating old fescue stands would be wasted as the infected fescue is ubiquitous and would soon take over again.
  9. And finally a resignation to what is perceived to be a lack of alternatives.

For at least the last twenty years I have been in the camp of mitigation.  That is, I have tried every strategy I could implement to reduce the impact of the toxic fescue and improve my animal performance.  These are still valid strategies and in my opinion are currently the very least that livestock managers should be doing.  I have not been able to implement them in entirety because I have been dragging more tradition bound folks along with me.

Smoking is not the only bad habit that is hard to break.  It has been my experience over the last 17 years at the district, that an ingrained agricultural habit can be every bit as hard to break as a nicotine habit.  Maybe worse as the practioner usually sees no valid reason to change what, in his mind, works.

What is mitigation.  Mitigation is anything that can be done to make the existing situation better.

  1. Dilution by adding clover.
  2. Dilution by adding other species
  3. Managed grazing
  4. Supplementation
  5. A strong mineral program
  6. Seed head suppression
  7. Performance selection for tolerance
  8. Changing breeds of livestock
  9. Adopting new forage species

This last strategy is one that several of our Cover Crop Project participants stumbled on over the course of our project.  It was the use of multispecies cover crops for grazing.  Both cool season and warm season cover crops had a good contributing effect for these producers.  These cover crops are excellent quality forage that yield good gains and are particularly beneficial during periods of summer slump for cool season grasses.  They provide an abundance of high quality forage that is without toxic effect.  Several of these producers are increasing their Multi Species Cover Crop grazing acreage.  Their thought process is that even though there is an increased cost for planting annual cover crops that the performance and productivity boost justifies the cost.

Now for the good news from the conference.

There is a new bovine genetic test for tolerance to fescue toxicity.  As I have previously stated elsewhere I am going to test all of the females in my small hard….the cost of testing is supposed to be in the area of $30.00 per animal.  I have contacted the two places from which I obtain semen to breed my cattle.  One is a closed herd and they are testing now.  The other is a commercial bull stud and they are not yet testing.  They are waiting for reliability and repeatability numbers to confirm the strategy.  One must remember that the entire cattle market is not in the fescue belt.  So for a big part of the country this is not an issue.  For me….I will most likely adopt a strategy of using the best quality bull I can find that tests well for fescue tolerance.  There is some thought that the cow may have a greater role than the bull in progeny adaptation, but this is unproven as yet.  So to hedge my bets I am going to begin to use bulls that test well for fescue tolerance.  My logic is that there is little value in testing and improving my females if I then breed them to a bull that has less genetic tolerance.  The calves would then be more affected by the fescue than the cows.

I have just learned today that I can send a straw of semen to the testing lab and they can test and tell me the status of the bulls I have in the semen tank.  I am going to look at my inventory this afternoon.

Secondly there is now a test to determine how badly your fescue pastures are infected.  Matt Booher and John Benner have been doing testing at 14 sites in the Valley of Virginia and have had startling results.  The sampling being done by these extension agents is being tested at a commercial lab.  I think they were operating under a grant to do the testing.  I have no idea of the relative cost of the testing.  But the process is a bit complicated.  The data they have generated has been tremendous at revealing in terms of the magnitude, extent and timing of when fescue toxicosis is at its worst. Long story made short is that you can now determine if you have a problem and how bad it is.  It will probably take some assistance from your extension agent.

And last but not least…I am modifying my position on pasture renovation to eliminate infected fescue.

One factor has been seed cost.  Until lately there has only been Max Q Endophyte Friendly.  The seed cost was north of $5.00 per lb.  Now there are six named cultivars of Endophyte Friendly fescue and competition should bring price down.  Also given all the costs of renovation seed cost alone is less of a factor.

In the past I have discussed this with quite a few producers.  Now I think that I may have given some of them bad advice.  My biggest fear is that the pasture would end up repopulated by infected fescue over time.  Since I am unable to look at a fescue plant and tell if it is infected fescue or novel endophyte fescue, I could not tell when and if reinfection took place.

The evidence I heard from the researchers at the conference is that reinfection would be more likely to occur thru management issues than from natural occurrence.

Infection requires the introduction of infected seed to the soil.  There are four basic ways this will occur.

  1. Planting infected seed. I can think of no valid reason to plant an unimproved fescue variety, be it K31 or other varieties, in any situation that might involve livestock.
  2. Dirty equipment. For example bush hogging an infected field and then bush hogging a novel field without washing off the bush hog.  You are reseeding with the infected plant seed.  Or similarly carrying seed from field to field with a mower or baler.
  3. Feeding infected hay on a clean field. This will not only introduce the infected seed but the livestock will work it into the soil and fertilize it for you.  Alternatives would be to not feed hay on a novel endophyte field, or feed only uninfected hay, or feed something other than fescue hay or at the very least feed second cutting hay that should have limited seed heads.
  4. Cows moving seed from field to field. The experts said that digestive processes would reduce the number of viable seed going thru the animal.  But some seed would go thru.  A simple management strategy would be to have somewhere uninfected for cows to go for three or four days before going to the novel endophyte field and the danger of then having livestock broadcasting infected seed would be greatly reduced.  This is another case where having a few days of grazing on small grain or multi species cover crops could serve as a buffer to seed transmission.

I foresee an opportunity for progressive stockmen to take advantage of a couple of new innovations and reduce the vulnerability of infected fescue.

I have already mentioned the benefits of using multi species cover crops in a grazing operation.  Our Graziers who used them actually were among the most vigorous supporters of our project.  They all saw immediate benefits from grazing the cover crops.

The standard recommendation for renovating an infected field is to Spray – Smother – Spray and replant.   That is to spray the infected fescue in late May or early June with herbicide to kill it.  Then plant a smother crop such as millet or sudan or sorghum or MSCC…graze or hay this crop…then in the fall spray herbicide again and plant the novel endophyte.  For those that wish to resist the use of herbicides, your best course is to stick with mitigation as Fescue and Bermuda grass once established are not going to be terminated through cultural means.  I have planted enough cover crops into existing pastures over the last three years to testify that without suppression of the grass, the cover crops will not compete and will not perform well.

I would suggest that with the use of Multi Species Cover Crops we could improve on this recommendation and implement a program of improved grazing and an orderly transition from infected fescue to a clean operation.

The first advice is to do any conversion over time….not all at once.  Pick the field that needs improving the most and start there.  Maybe 10 percent and no more than 25 percent of the available acreage.

My thought would be to use the spray – smother – spray with an extended smother phase.  What I mean by that is to run two or three sequential cover crops in the smother phase.  This would offer several benefits.  We have already discussed how the annual cover crops can augment productivity in a grazing program.  They can reduce the exposure to the toxins as they are not host to the endophyte.  They can serve to smother the fescue.  But I think it is asking a lot of a single cover crop to smother out fescue in a single iteration.  Also by using sequential cover crops you are not as locked in to a particular season of beginning the transition.  You could spray in the fall and then plant a cool season cover crop (preferably a Multi Species Cover Crop ).  Using MSCC with some deep rooted species and some legumes, gives you an opportunity to build the soil health during the transition period.  Graze or hay that crop as needed.  Then come spring there is a opportunity to spot spray for Fescue that is still there.  Then Plant a Summer Cover (preferably a MSCC ) and again graze or hay as needed.  Then in the fall you have yet again another opportunity to check for and if needed treat any lingering infected fescue and then plant your new crop.

To start in the summer go Summer MSCC, Then Fall Cool Season MSCC, Then Summer MSCC, then fall plant Novel Endophyte.

Using this system you could start a new block every year with no loss of productivity.

By integrating annual diverse cover crops you can actually increase forage production while making the transition to a higher quality novel endophyte with all the benefits of fescue with none of the drawbacks of fescue toxicity.

I hope at least some of this makes a little sense.  I have tried to compress a full days worth of presentations by industry leading researchers and teachers and temper it with my own interpretations.  I confess to being a bit excited over some of these new revelations.  I am hopeful that this genetic testing for tolerance will be a quantum leap forward.  I see a natural role for a project I have invested the last few years in to aid in improving total forage management.  A test for levels of endophyte infection is a major step forward.

To those who might not have planted the Novel endophyte fescues after talking with me…I offer my apologies, as I may have been wrong.

We owe it to the livestock under our care to provide the best environment we can.  The animals health and well being contribute toward a more positive bottom line and it is incumbent upon stockmen to provide the healthiest environment possible to the livestock in our care…



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