Why are you just coping?
By Loretta Sorensen
Fescue. It’s prized where extreme weather conditions persist, surviving cold and hot temperatures, waterlogged or dry soils and pressures from insects, diseases and overgrazing. Some 35 million acres of U.S. pasture and hay land are planted to fescue.
However, what some ranchers have perceived as Tall Fescue management may actually have been what Missouri’s State Forage Specialist, Craig Roberts, calls “coping with bad grass.”
In his work, Roberts has seen fescue cut beef cattle gains, lower birth rates, reduce milk production, cause fescue foot, and more.
“All of these things can be dealt with,” says Roberts. “But a true cure for Tall Fescue issues is replacing it with a novel endophyte.”
In short, a novel endophyte is a fescue that has all the desired fescue traits such as drought tolerance, productive growth, vigor, etc. and a non-toxic endophyte. Novel-endophyte cultivars won’t produce toxic ergo alkaloids.
Novel endophyte products came to the marketplace in 2000 after researchers Dr. Joe Bouton (University of Georgia) and Dr. Gary Latch (Ag Research Limited of New Zealand) placed non-toxic fescue endophytes into fescue cultivars. The result? All the desired fescue traits minus the toxic ergot alkaloids, known as novel endophytes.
Wasn’t this done before? And didn’t it turn out badly? Good questions.
Researchers did develop endophyte-free fescue cultivars in the 1980s and 90s, which meant they didn’t produce toxins. For several years, the endophyte-free fescue seemed a good solution.
When endophyte-free fescue pastures and hay meadows inexplicably began declining and dying in as little as one year, researchers went back to the drawing board, finding that fescue’s endophytes played a key role in plant health.
“Further research revealed that the endophytes protected plants against pests, disease, stress and aided in activities like phosphorus uptake,” Roberts says.
Since 2000, seed companies have offered novel-endophyte cultivars, and some livestock producers have been transitioning from toxic fescue to the new varieties. Establishing a novel endophyte will take one year of management before a pasture or grazing area can be used. However, killing old cultivars like Kentucky 31 requires an “all-out assault.”
“Toxic fescue is hardy, that’s what livestock owners like about it,” Roberts states. “Total eradication of a toxic fescue in a field is required before planting a new novel-endophyte.”
Herbicide will kill cultivars like Kentucky 31, but it takes more than one application. Generally, glyphosate is most effective on actively growing toxic fescue. Roberts also recommends using a spray-smother-spray approach to effectively eradicate toxic fescue.
“Typically, a pasture with toxic fescue can be sprayed in spring to get the eradication process started,” suggests Roberts. “After one week, an annual cereal grass cover crop can be drilled into the pasture.”
The cover crop provides some summer grazing, but most importantly, when toxic fescue seeds in the ground sprout during summer, a cover crop will smother seedlings. Cover crop options should include varieties with canopies that allow light to penetrate the stand and reach any volunteer seedlings and tillers that escaped herbicide treatment.
“The few survivors of the first herbicide application need to be healthy and growing so the second application will kill them,” says Roberts.
The final eradication step is a fall spraying that kills the cover crop and any tough toxic fescue tillers and seedlings that survived the first spray and smothering phase.
“Nearly everyone comes up with a way to shorten this process,” Roberts shares. “But many shortcuts don’t work on toxic fescue. This eradication ‘recipe’ is time-tested and should be followed.”
U of Georgia weighs in
A spray-wait-spray method, developed at the University of Georgia, has been effective in the southern U.S. Spraying timing is key in the success of this approach. Three steps in the spray-wait-spray method include clipping old tall fescue seed heads in spring; spraying the field in summer; spraying it again before planting a novel-endophyte.
“The University of Georgia has found that herbicide applications should be at least six weeks apart,” Roberts recommends. “To plan the eradication, determine when the final application will be made and subtract at least six weeks to identify the first application date.”
In selecting a new novel-endophyte, Roberts advises guarding against being persuaded to plant endophyte-free tall fescue.
“It’s true endophyte-free tall fescue can survive in non-stressed environments with deep soils and short summers,” Roberts explains. “However, in the fescue belt, endophyte-free varieties don’t survive consistently. Frequently, they die out due to drought, insects and pathogens.”
Roberts also encourages selection of seed that includes the Alliance for Grassland Renewal seal. The Alliance, including partners from the Universities of Kentucky and Missouri, government, industry (producers, seed companies, testing labs) and nonprofit groups, was formed in 2012. Details about the organization are available at www.grasslandrenewal.org.
The goal of the Alliance is “to work together in replacing toxic tall fescue grass with a tall fescue that hosts a nontoxic endophyte, sometimes call a ‘novel’ endophyte.”
“The Alliance seal protects farmers from fraudulent and inferior seed,” Roberts cautions. “When seed contains the seal, buyers can know the seed endophyte is nontoxic to cattle and is alive.”
The seal, which doesn’t add to seed costs, is accompanied by a statement that the bag’s seed lot was tested and “found to contain no more than 5 percent off-type endophyte.” In other words, 95% of the endophyte in the labeled bag is nontoxic. The statement also indicates that at least 70% of the seed’s endophyte is alive.
“That’s important, because if the endophyte is dead, planting the seed will produce a field of endophyte-free tall fescue,” Roberts says.
Help with the cost is available
The Alliance also works to assist farmers in finding and qualifying for novel-endophyte establishment incentives, since the cost of replacing toxic fescue can range from $185 to $240 per acre. Currently, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the only available cost-share option.
Seed company representatives can assist in selection of a novel-endophyte suited to an individual farm operation. Cultivar variations include soft leaf types, second-generation endophytes, early maturing and some types developed over a wide region. A list of reputable seed companies can be found on the Alliance website (www.grasslandrenewal.org).
“All yield and animal performance data suggest there is little difference between different varieties under good growing conditions,” Roberts shares.
Due to differences in growth habits, palatability and planting timing, it’s not recommended to add other grasses or legumes when planting novel-endophyte cultivars. They can be added after the novel-endophyte is established.
“One or two legumes can be frost-seeded once a novel fescue pasture is established,” Roberts says. “The legumes will furnish high-quality forage and serve as a nitrogen source while the fescue becomes established.”
Fall seedings (August/September) tend to have less weed competition and more favorable moisture conditions than late spring seedings. Soil testing prior to seeding is recommended. Details about optimum fertility plans is available at https://extension2.missouri.edu/g4646.
“In planting new tall fescue, don’t drill too deep,” Roberts suggests. “The no-till drill should cut through stubble and place seed ¼ inch in the soil. And don’t plant a companion crop with the new tall fescue. Birdsfoot trefoil is the only exception, because of its poor seedling vigor. Other species can compete with emerging new fescue seedlings.”
Roberts emphasizes that no single article can address all the details related to establishing and managing a new novel-endophyte. The Alliance for Grassland Renewal offers annual one-day events designed to guide producers through all the do’s and don’ts related to transitioning to a novel-endophyte.
Five different one-day schools, running from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. will be held at The University of Missouri (March 6), University of Kentucky (March 8), Clemson University (March 13), North Carolina State University (March 14) and Virginia Tech University (March 15). Details about each event can be found at www.grasslandrenewal.org under the “Education” link.
“I’ve made the last few years of my career a vendetta against toxic fescue because novel-endophyte fescue is a true cure for all the toxicity issues,” concludes Roberts.