Reseeding toxic fescue takes time but cuts big losses for beef farmers

  • Published: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Toxin-free fescue gives long-term high gains, says Craig Roberts, University of Missouri Extension pasture specialist.

He believes novel-endophyte tall fescue deserves first place in every livestock grazing farm.

Added value comes from better animal growth and fewer death losses. That adds higher pasture profits, Roberts says. New pastures seeded to a novel-endophyte tall fescue cut problems from toxins.

For years the most-used pasture grass in Missouri has been K-31 tall fescue. It contains an internal fungus, an endophyte, with a host of ills.

Losses come from low gains, lost conceptions and heat stress. The toxic alkaloids cause constricted blood flow to legs, ears and tails. Fescue foot in winter leads to death.

In summer, cattle with hot feet stand in ponds and streams to cool. That cuts grazing time when cattle should gain.

For years cattle buyers shunned “fescue calves.” Those were seen with long, brown hair coats in summer, short ears from frostbite and short tails.

Over time, farmers found workarounds to reduce toxin problems. That includes diluting pastures with clovers for faster gains. But clover doesn't do the trick, Roberts says. Legumes recover only one-third of lost gains. Also, they don’t solve reproduction problems.

Farmers like hardy fescue pastures. They’re almost indestructible. Endophyte protects grass from pests, droughts and grazing.

New fescue varieties with novel endophyte cut the losses while protecting the grass. They don’t cause ills in cattle. Renovated pastures give the best of both. They cut loss and add gain.

Roberts and others across the Fescue Belt join to fight problems. In workshops they teach how to seed new varieties.

Killing old stands of toxic fescue isn’t easy, but winning the battle pays well for needed time and effort, Roberts says.

Reseeding becomes a profitable undertaking for grass farmers, Roberts says. Economists show that toxic fescue costs $1 billion a year. Losses come from lower calving rates, weaning weights, milk and finishing gains.

Once replaced, the new novel endophytes give a lifetime of benefits.

Roberts started the movement bringing forces together. The Alliance for Grassland Renewal merges efforts of land-grant universities, seed companies, researchers, farmers, testing labs and nonprofit groups.

In the workshops, farmers who made early transitions to novel endophytes prove to be the best teachers, Roberts says.

A successful way to kill and reseed fescue has been called “spray-smother-spray.” Innovative farmers found other methods now taught in workshops, Roberts says.

Roberts learned to quickly spell out the bad in old fescue and the good in the new.

“Novel endophytes offer all-natural bio-controls,” Roberts says. “No GMOs used.” Good endophytes found in nature control insects and pathogens and resist drought.

Roberts lists the environmental advantages. “Water quality improves when cattle don’t stand in and defecate in ponds and streams.”

Cattle spend more time grazing.

The old workarounds, such as interseeding clovers, add benefits in novel-endophyte grazing paddocks. Legumes still add proteins to grazing rations. That helps gains.

The first 2019 workshop is March 18 at the MU Southwest Research Center, Mount Vernon. Plots of the novel-endophyte varieties grazed by cattle have been there for years. Skills include calibrating seed drills to plant the small seeds.

Schools will be held in Missouri, Kentucky and southern states along the East Coast. See details at grasslandrenewal.org/education.htm.

Schools include classroom and field exercises. “We do it all in one day, so no overnight stay required,” Roberts adds.

Writer: Duane Dailey

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