Fescue beneficial with management

As a little boy on our farm in Morgan County, I could identify orchardgrass, bromegrass, alfalfa and clover, but never heard of fescue. Then fescue moved in.

I’m sure it was a combination of things. It was probably the spreading of fescue from reclamation projects and the fertility of the farm going down when it transitioned from a dairy to a beef farm.

When it stared to grow on the farm, cattle would eat all the other grasses and legumes, and not touch the fescue. Eventually, most of the forages on the farm were fescue. The cattle, by not grazing the fescue, helped it to become the primary forage.

I have spent a lot of time over the past twenty years learning and teaching how to manage fescue and I keep learning more.

Characteristics

Fescue is a drought-resistant, aggressive plant that has the ability to scavenge additional nutrients and resist pests and diseases. This is because most fescue in our area has an endophyte, or fungus, that lives between the cell walls of the plants.

Unfortunately, this can have detrimental affects on livestock. Cattle can have elevated body temperatures, reduced milk production and weight gains during the summer, and horses can have foaling problems.

On the bright side, rotational grazing can encourage other grasses and legumes to establish in pastures. We have learned that it is an excellent grass to stockpile for winter grazing. Grazing the forage hard in the winter will allow new grasses and legumes to become established in the next growing season.

The endophyte tends to accumulate more in the stem and seed head, so clipping pastures when the plant matures can reduce problems with livestock.

If you want to reseed a pasture in fescue we have excellent endophyte free varieties that animals find more palatable. The disadvantage of these varieties are that they may not persist as well as endophyte infected fescue, and eventually infected fescue may overtake the field.

New strain

In recent years, there has been the development of novel endophyte fescue. This fescue has the advantages of infected fescue, but none of the disadvantages. It is drought, insect, and disease resistant, but has no adverse problems to livestock. This is an excellent option for high traffic, hilly areas where livestock graze.

Many of us harvest hay with significant amounts of fescue and we have concerns about the endophyte levels of the hay. Research indicates that endophyte levels are higher in the stems and seed heads than in the leaves, which is substantial with first cutting hay.

Research from Garner et al, 2007 (Tall Fescue Online Monograph) suggests that as much as 50 percent of the endophyte can be removed during the curing process. There seems to be more loss from the curing process in the summer than in the spring.

So levels of endophyte may be lower in hay then in fresh grass, but the levels could still be high, so if you expect problems, diluting the hay with other hay or a supplement such as corn can reduce problems.

Grazing

The best time to graze is in the fall and winter, but many of us must graze fescue during the growing season. As mentioned, we can reduce endophyte problems by rotating pastures to encourage uniform grazing, encouraging more species.

Clipping pastures in the late spring when seed heads form will help. Testing soil to make sure pH, phosphorus and potassium levels are acceptable gives other species an equal chance.

Avoiding too much nitrogen in a spring and summer fertilization is important because endophyte levels could increase (Arechavaleta et al., 1992). Finally, a total renovation of an area with different species is an option.

Stockpiling

This leads me to stockpiling for fall and winter grazing. As temperatures drop and we receive frosts, endophyte levels start to decrease and sugar levels start to increase, making fescue more palatable to livestock.

Research from University of Missouri indicated that by mid January, endophyte levels were low enough that they would not cause problems. This is a great time to graze fescue. Endophyte levels in the standing grass in many situations will be lower than in the hay.

Stockpiling fescue for winter grazing is an inexpensive way to increase forages for winter grazing, but frustrating when urea is applied, then it doesn’t rain for weeks and the urea volatilizes into the atmosphere, resulting in no increase in yields.

Tests. Clif Little, Extension educator for Guernsey and Noble Counties, and I are conducting trials at the Eastern Agricultural Research station near Belle Valley to determine if nitrogen inhibitors and other products can improve yields with urea and calcium nitrate at the rate of 50#/nitrogen/acre, especially in dry years.

The photo shows the plots Aug. 19, two weeks after the stockpiling was initiated and treatments applied Aug. 6. When we have results, we will share them with you.

Research out of the University of Kentucky (Frye, Murdock & Blevins) indicates the nitrogen inhibitors for stockpiling fescue has the potential to increase the efficiency of urea fertilizers for stockpiling fescue.

Fescue can be used to its advantage. We can use management to reduce fescue in our fields and we can use it when it is beneficial in the cold months.

Goal

My goal has been to get a mixed sward where there is some fescue that can be used for winter grazing, but not enough to cause problems during the summer months. It has improved over the years, but I have a way to go. Now if I can manage autumn olive and multiflora rose, I will be making real progress!

(Chris Penrose is an OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources and 4-H Youth Development in Morgan County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460.)

About the Author

Chris Penrose is an OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources and 4-H Youth Development in Morgan County. More Stories by Chris Penrose

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