COLUMBIA, Mo. – To reduce fescue foot, a long-used plan to feed winter hay after grazing down fall pastures should be changed. A University of Missouri Extension forage specialist says it’s backwards. Feed hay first; then graze stockpiled winter pastures.
Now is time to change, says Craig Roberts. He’s a world-known authority on managing toxic tall fescue. That’s the No.1 forage in Missouri and across the Fescue Belt, the states south and east to the Atlantic.
Feeding hay before grazing cuts endophyte toxin in both forages fed cow herds. Less toxin cuts cases of fescue foot, which cripples cows and can cause death. Tall fescue grass has two growing seasons. The most forage grows in a spring flush. This can be cut for hay. But when fall rains return, fescue pastures peak again.
Growth peaks are when livestock eat most toxins growing in Kentucky 31 fescue.
Mowing, curing and baling toxic fescue dissipates a large part of the toxin. Sunshine and wind reduce the poison, Roberts says.
Cured hay provides a feed lower in toxin compared to grazed fescue.
Users of tall fescue pastures learn management tricks to lower losses from toxic grass.
The most visible livestock loss comes from fescue foot. The ergovaline in fescue restricts blood flow to cattle’s feet. In worst cases, cows’ hooves fall off. She can’t walk to graze.
Fescue foot shows up in cold weather, but toxins cause problems year-round. Most farmers never see losses. They don’t note nursing cows give less milk. Their calves don’t gain as fast. Cow herds fail to breed and calve. Losses mount slowly, sight unseen.
Roberts, a longtime advocate of replacing toxic tall fescue, says toxin-free or “novel endophyte” fescue prevents losses.
Actually, endophyte has value in making fescue durable. The toxin slows cattle grazing, which extends grass life. Toxins also repel pests of grass. Farmers continue using infected pastures, as they’re almost indestructible. However, that value can’t offset losses.
It was a long time coming, but novel-endophyte fescue varieties are available. New nontoxic endophyte fungi protect new varieties. Endophyte-free fescue rarely works.
A drawback slowing conversion is the long process of killing toxic fescue and reseeding new. Every sprig of old fescue must be killed before planting new seed. Missouri scientists developed a working conversion: “spray-smother-spray.” A K-31 pasture is sprayed with herbicide. Then a seeded cover crop crowds out toxic fescue remainders. Finally, that cover is sprayed again to kill remaining toxic fescue. New fescue seeding follows.
“The yearlong process is worth it,” Roberts says. “You gain benefits of novel-endophyte fescue without losses.”
“Meanwhile, until new novel-endophyte fescue is seeded, you must manage the toxin,” Roberts says. “We go from managing grass to managing toxin.”
Toxins are hottest in stems and seed heads. Clipping provides a means to manage. That chore is eliminated with novel endophyte.
Ease of management becomes a big advantage of new fescue. Even better, improved grazing and hay improve beef production.
For now, delay hay feeding to use stockpiled pasture. Hay in barns loses toxins during the first month stored. Fall-grown stockpile fescue pasture has no seed stems or seed heads, plus delayed grazing lowers toxins in fescue pastures. Use winter grazing.
Hay made last spring will be less toxic by feeding time.
Research on fescue grazing proves value in switching to early feeding of hay.
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal, a nonprofit group, holds grazing schools in states across the Fescue Belt. They start in March in the Ozarks. Go to grasslandrenewal.org.
MU Extension field agronomists offer advice in fescue use.