Replacing toxic fescue boosts beef gains

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Killing Kentucky 31 fescue pastures takes planning and patience. That’s required before seeding new nontoxic replacement forage.

The second step is managing the newly seeded pasture.   

“Cows overgrazing can kill the new grass,” says Craig Roberts, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.

Roberts and a team from the Alliance for Grassland Renewal will explain those steps in four one-day workshops, starting March 31. The group aims to eradicate toxic K-31 fescue. First, they teach how to reseed with one of five available varieties of novel-endophyte fescue.

Many farmers know the MU plan for “spray-smother-spray,” Roberts says. The yearlong process kills K-31 – and seeds in the soil.

The new varieties take more management, however. That will be a big part of the schools held across the state.

“Grass management is tricky,” Roberts says. The problem is that the toxic K-31 fescue was almost impossible to kill. The endophyte fungus in the grass limited overgrazing by livestock. The toxin limited feeding.

By limiting grazing, K-31 toxins cut livestock productivity. Cows produce less milk. Calves gain fewer pounds. And herd health fails. Cows don’t stay in the herd as long when grazed on toxic fescue.

By removing the toxic endophyte and replacing it with a novel endophyte, the plant defense was lowered. A novel endophyte is needed to protect the plant, but the defense isn’t as strong.

The novel endophyte boosts gains. However, the new varieties require managed grazing. Grass farmers who attended grazing schools will understand management-intensive grazing, Roberts says.

The fescue schools will teach ways to plant and manage the new varieties, Roberts says. “We know how to kill the old fescue. And we know how to manage the new fescue.”

The methods have been tested at MU agricultural research centers and nearby farms.

Each type of forage requires its own management, Roberts says. Alfalfa is managed for hay quality. Bermuda grass is managed for forage quality. Annual lespedeza is managed for self-reseeding. The old K-31 is managed to reduce toxicosis.

Novel-endophyte fescues must be managed for persistence. After the expense of reseeding, the stand must be protected. The major point: Novel fescue cannot be managed like old toxic fescue, Roberts says.

With management, new fescues boost pounds of calf.

Current calf prices give incentives to seed a new variety. The payback on pasture renewal will be faster when calves sell for $2.40 a pound instead of 90 cents.

The time is right to renovate toxic pastures, Roberts says. He urges innovators to come to the nearest school at the MU research centers of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

The schools and local contacts are:

  • March 31, Mount Vernon; MU Southwest Research Center. Carla Rathmann, 417-466-2148.
  • April 1, Cook Station; MU Wurdack Farm. Will McClain, 573-775-2135.
  • April 2, Columbia; MU Beef Research and Teaching Farm on Highway 63 South. Lena Johnson, 573-882-7327.
  • April 3, Linneus; MU Forage Systems Research Center. Tamie Carr, 660-895-5121.

Details are available on the Alliance website at www.grasslandrenewal.org or from a local contact.

Each school has limited capacity. “We can’t enroll everyone who needs to attend,” Roberts says.

The Alliance brings together researchers, extension specialists, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, seed and testing companies, nonprofit organizations and farmers. All have been working to renovate fescue pastures across the state.


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