Tall fescue (Schedonorus phoenix (Scop.) Holub) is a cool season perennial grass that fills a critical forage production gap and is the predominant forage crop in Ohio.
Tall fescue is the most widely used grass on improved pastures cross the U.S., occupying more than 36 million acres. Its popularity is related to establishment ease, drought tolerance, excellent grazing persistence, and a long grazing season.
Research In the late 1970s found that fescue toxicity was associated with the presence of an endophyte (internal fungus) in the grass. We have since learned that it is also responsible for fat necrosis, accumulation of fat masses in the abdomens of livestock, and fescue foot that is a gangrenous condition in cattle that is most commonly seen in the rear feet.
Some of these undesirable attributes are due to the presence of a fungus (Neotyphodium coenophialum) that lives inside the plant (endophyte). This fungus is transmitted from one generation to the next in the seed. It is not transmitted through pollen or from plant to plant.
This toxic endophyte produces toxic alkaloids that greatly decrease animal gains and reproductive performance, which, conservatively estimated, costs the U.S. beef industry from $600 million to more than $1 billion annually.
With the most recent strategy developed, novel endophytes are inserted into fescue. This term refers to special strains of the fungus that do not produce toxins, but they do impart pest resistance and stress tolerance to fescue plants.
Research has demonstrated that pure stands of novel endophyte fescue with normal grazing conditions persisted as well as toxic endophyte fescue. Over a four-year study, the novel endophyte tall fescue maintained stands equal to toxic tall fescue.
Novel endophyte fescue requires special seed production and handling techniques, making the seed three to four times more expensive than Kentucky 31.
Many ranchers probably ask themselves, “Can I actively afford to plant that high priced novel endophyte seed?”
Despite the fact that it is a bit more expensive to plant novel endophyte fescue seed, ranchers will offset the cost of establishing novel endophyte fescue by increasing livestock efficiency.
There’s an old saying: “There’s a difference between sense and cents.” Sometimes too much focus on cents in the short run doesn’t make sense in the long run.
Renovating pastures to a novel endophyte tall fescue requires proper planning. The newly renovated pastures will be out of the grazing program for several months. Be prepared to adjust the grazing plan during this transiting period. Extra forage may be needed to fill in the grazing void.
There are four steps in this renovation program:
These steps are essential in the eradication of the toxic endophyte infected stand of fescue.
Step 1: Step 1, destroying an existing stand of toxic tall fescue, is generally referred to as the spray-smother spray method. Spray the existing stand with a moderate to heavy rate of glyphosate (Roundup or the generic equivalent) or other herbicides recommend by the university extension service.
Step 2: Use no-till drills to plant two cover crops, one in the spring and one in the fall.
Growing a smother crop such as pearl millet during the summer and cool season annual forage such as small grain rye, ryegrass, and oats in the fall and early spring will depress the toxic endophyte infected fescue and prevent the seed bank from spouting. This forage can be harvest for livestock consumption.
Remember, the main purpose is to smother the toxic endophyte fescue.
No-till drills will help protect the carbon organic matter deposited in the soil over the years.
Soil tests should be done on the pastures to ensure pH and soil nutrients (N, P, and K) meet the plants requirements for maximum growth production.
Lime must be applied for plants to uptake available nutrients; this is especially important with a stand of clovers.
Clovers needs abundant of phosphorus to increase persistence in forage stands and may eliminate the need for spring nitrogen application.
Nitrogen rates over 100 pounds per acre per year may reduce clover population. Fall nitrogen applications may improve stockpiling fescue for winter grazing.
Step 3: Spray/Plant Novel Endophyte Fescue. After the annual forage harvest (spring/fall), spray surviving tall fescue plants and weeds with a moderate to heavy rate of glyphosate before planting the new stand.
Terminate either the spring or fall forage crop early to establish the new novel endophyte fescue. This will allow the newly establish novel endophyte fescue seedling to establish a root system before summer or winter.
Remember to plant with a no-till drill to protect the carbon organic matter in your soil.
Step 4: Like all tall fescue plantings, new plantings need special treatment. Do not cut or graze new plantings until the plants have grown at least 6 inches. Even then, only a light grazing is recommended to avoid stand damage.
A light mowing can help control weeds and encourage the tall fescue to grow (i.e., tiller) and thicken-in; however, take care not to cut tall fescue below a height of 6 inches in the spring following establishment.
An early hay cutting should not be taken from new tall fescue seedlings, but the novel endophyte tall fescue may be clipped to control weeds.
Flash grazing may also be used if the planting resulted in an acceptable stand.
Tall fescue stands should be managed to allow light to reach the base of the plants, which will encourage tillering; however, do not defoliate the plants too frequently or too severely.
After establishing the spring/ fall planting, novel endophyte tall fescue should be tested for the extent of novel endophyte infection in late April or May. This will ensure that the novel endophyte is present in the tall fescue, that at least 80 percent of the tall fescue contains the novel endophyte, and that little or no toxic endophyte-infected tall fescue is present.
Legumes, such as clovers, should be planted in the second year of the novel endophyte fescue stand. Clover stands should make up 20 to 30 percent of the forage. This will improve soil health and the quality of the forage by providing much needed nitrogen for forage production.
Good rotational grazing management practices should be noted to ensure a strong healthy pasture.
Maintain a 4-inch growth after grazing to ensure a healthy root system. This will improve the soil health by adding carbon organic matter to the soil. The higher the percent of organic matter, the higher the soil nutrient and water holding capacity.
As with any cool season grass, a rest period is needed in the summer as the grass becomes dormant.
And always remember, planting the right forage the first time is a lot like “Lettin’ the cat outta the bag, is a whole lot easier’n puttin’ it back!”