Producers learn to make the most of tall fescue

CM-MR-3-Producers learn 1by Jennifer Showalter
Even though fescue has earned such a bad name throughout the Shenandoah Valley over the years, producers are accepting that it is here to stay and are trying to learn how to best manage it in a way that minimizes the negative side effects of endophyte infection. Recently a group of around 50 gathered at the Augusta County Government Center to learn the results of a recent study conducted by the Virginia Extension Service on the entophyte found in fescue seed heads in the valley and to learn how to make the most of fescue.
Matt Booher with the Virginia Cooperative Extension shared that of the 25 farms he tested in Rockbridge, Augusta, and Rockingham Counties for entophyte infection levels, 65 percent of the pastures were 100 percent infected and 30 percent of the pastures were 80 to 90 percent infected. With livestock experiencing moderate to severe effects from entophyte infection at a 40 percent level, Booher concluded that the valley has some ‘hot’ pastures.
Brian Campbell, livestock specialist at the Southern Piedmont Agriculture Experiment Station, explained that KY-31 Tall Fescue covers 35 million acres and is here to stay. With endophyte infecting more than 80 percent of all U.S. Tall Fescue stands, Campbell encouraged the audience to give up eliminating it and instead do their best to manage it properly.
Endophtye is really what has given fescue a bad name, but there are some benefits of endophyte infection that are often not mentioned. The infection itself helps with seedling vigor, improves competition with other plant species, is drought tolerant, is insect and nematode resistance, and is anti-herbivory with grazing animals. With that said, Campbell explained that edophyte causes fescue foot, fat necrosis, and tall fescue toxicosis in cattle. “I am not sure there is any system in the body not affected by fescue toxicosis,” said Campbell.
Tall fescue toxicosis can cause a decrease in average daily gains, dry matter intake, reproduction, and prolactin levels, while increasing rectal temperatures and hair coat scores. Hair coat scores are based on a five point scale with one being a slick and smooth hair coat and five being a rough dead hair coat. According to Campbell, cows that have already slicked off by May 15 are the most productive cows in the herd. He feels there is a genetic link between cows that can perform on fescue and that it pays to cull and select appropriately.
To reduce tall fescue toxicosis, Campbell suggested planting clover and warm season grasses. “Clovers increase performance on any grasses. There is something magical about putting clover in fields. If you can get 30 percent clover in your fields, go for it,” said Campbell. He also suggest culling any cow that has not slicked off by May 15, clipping seed heads, rotating pastures, and utilizing novel endophytes such as MaxQ. “When you plant MaxQ, let it go to seed the first time so it can get established then add in clover,” said Campbell. With KY-31 fescue, Campbell suggested raising the mower so just the seed heads are clipped so the cows can eat the rest of the grass.
With fescue toxicosis taking a toll on conception rates, minerals that are high in copper may help with the issues along with other binders and seaweed. Campbell also recommended breeding when it is cold, pulling cattle off fescue two weeks before and two weeks after breeding, culling hard, and pulling bulls off fescue at least three weeks before breeding. “Fescue affects the ability for sperm to fertilize eggs,” says Campbell. He pointed out that 85 to 90 percent of AI bulls are not necessarily selected for performance on fescue, so it is important to realize that when buying semen. Buying bulls from local producers that have been raised on fescue is a better bet. “If you are going to put bulls on grass, buy bulls that have been developed on grass not feed. They will perform better than those use to receiving feed.”
Producers can fight fescue forever, or simply learn to deal with it and make the most out of it. This meeting served as a good reminder of ways to do just that.

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