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Animal Health Notebook

Answering reader remarks about fescue research blog

Alan Newport Fescue roots upended
Fescue roots are relatively shallow and need good moisture for the plant to thrive.
Author says comments about fescue management match science and real-world experience.

Webster defines “swagger” as the showing of self-confidence to the point of bragging. I define the word “spitting” as something I do several times after putting a chew of tobacco or dip of snuff in my mouth a little too early in the morning.

In comments regarding my Jan. 31 blog on fescue research, I was cited as being guilty of both concerning the cattle business and my opinions. Since the records indicate that 17,000 people read Beef Producer weekly and we don’t receive more than a shirt-tail of comments, I am sort of tickled.

I’ve run a cattle operation mostly on a part-time basis since 1981 or 1882. We’ve fed and/or grazed somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 head and taken almost half of them to slaughter weight. I’ve driven and worked for something like 2,000 cattle, hog and goat producers since 1977. Most of my experiences (almost all) have had to do with problems dealing with sickness, death, disease, dystocia and reproductive failure. It has been a somewhat typical veterinarian's life. Our cattle operation has resulted in annual profitability every year with two exceptions. Those were the two years we had cattle finished at out-of-state feedlots.

I have always wanted to be self-confident in every decision that was to be made but could never pull it off on a regular basis when it came to animal health. There were always too many variables that I just could not control. This was and is always true when someone else assumes management.

The study and some learning of natural systems and the principles of the natural model have sure helped our operation tremendously. Profits per acre have increased dramatically as our understanding and accurate application has been applied. This can be true for every operation in America. But the truth is that there continues to be a breakdown in communication and understanding and execution.

I have reported many times on Kentucky 31(K-31) fescue and its effects along the I-40 corridor, especially in my area and experience. In the past decade scores of producers have visited our little operation to see and hear how we have elected to manage our cattle and pastures while utilizing fescue. We have spoken of the successes and the failures.

Missouri's Doug Peterson is forage and soil scientist with NRCS and has a couple of decades of experience with fescue and several other cool-season and warm-season plants as a rancher. With few exceptions he says cool-season plants are water loving. Plant books even say that western native fescues (Idaho and Rough) do best on moist sites in years of above average moisture. K-31 likes rain and it likes it real regular. It also loves nitrogen and phosphorus inputs. There is nothing backward or incorrect about my teaching.

Cattle production on heavy stands of K-31 will never win any bragging rights. If you manage for fescue then you are managing away from high profitability and usually even moderate profitability. Summer and infected fescue really don't mix. In our country a good stand of fescue in May that must be grazed is a minus. This is a fact. By the way, a good stand of K-31 in May is a long way outside of the natural model.

I don’t claim to know about Idaho fescue, but I mentioned K-31 produces sterility through competitive action by the endophyte. The word sterility may be too strong, but many studies have shown decreased biological activity tied to endophyte-infected fescue. Here is a study that mentions new and old data. Peterson is a good one to ask if you want more specifics than I’ve written in past blogs. I promise to write more in the future since this is a critical point. This includes decreases in biodiversity which just happens to be a major key to system stability.

There are questions concerning soil development. K-31 in what is considered good stands (50% plus) stops soil development, although USDA-ARS researcher Alan Franzluebbers has shown the potential for increased carbon storage under K-31 fescue at the same time biological diversity is harmed. This has been shown for years with waterline, shovels and soil tests. Fescue can be grown and managed but new soil does not grow up. This is a fact.

System failure has been questioned as to meaning. When cattle don’t produce on forage at an acceptable profit per acre I call this system failure. On forage-based programs with high fescue consumption the system failure is nearly always due to the fescue. At 499 Ranch we have proved this fact for something exceeding a decade. Anyone who claims to have witnessed high sustainability of profits from high stands of K-31 that are 40-50 years old needs to find another word to use besides sustainability. A lot more experience and study might also be in order.

I have been quoted as being wrong in my recommendations concerning “bust” grazing of cool-season and KY 31 plants in the late winter and spring. The natural model was doing exactly what I recommended for thousands of years before we showed up. I agree with North Dakota farmer and soil builder Gabe Brown, who says to look around and see if you can find land and soil that is better and deeper than it was 500 years ago. It is not as good or as deep.

I have been rightly accused of making a little fun of some research both university and otherwise. One-time Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz used university research to convince thousands of good midwestern and southern ranchers/farmers to tear out their fences and become agribusinessmen in the early 1970s. It was not a good pathway.

I scratched my way through the 1980s and saw the death of hundreds and hundreds of such producer operations. I work every day to avoid a repeat, but I’ll be the first to say that the green revolution is a delusion and history tends to repeat itself. The great majority of America’s agriculturists would do well to read, listen and study the writings of Oklahoma rancher and consultant Walt Davis.

Bailing wire and cigars and bullstuff aside, the simple truth is that good science will always prove good husbandry. Both are forced to pass the natural model testing. If they regularly fail they are wrong.

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