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Animal Health Notebook
cattle on short fescue pasture JackieNix-iStock-Thinkstock
Author says we need to manage fescue with bigger goals in mind than just grazing to a predetermined height.

Fescue research findings keep missing the mark

The solution to the fescue problem is in the way we see it and manage it, not in the next silver bullet.

It is amazing how good the systems that claim to be serving the cattle business (and agriculture) are at hitting the center of the bullseye on the wrong target.

Back in the 1960s and ‘70s we realized that Kentucky 31 fescue was causing a bunch of problems with our cattle. At that time no one was looking down and paying much attention to the soil and its health. Certainly almost no one was thinking about growing new soil. Most agronomists agreed and told us that quality new soil was not going to happen. We just needed to stabilize and hold what we had.

In the late 1970s and ‘80s the endophyte was identified in Kentucky 31 and in a few years the endophyte-free varieties were introduced. Vaccines to cure the problems were promised. The results were mostly failure and money loss.

Next came the advent of novel fescue varieties. Fifteen plus years into these programs there has been one consistent result. Failure and money loss. Several reasons for the failures are rather simple and easy to see when we seriously look at what is happening in the systems from a natural model approach:

  • All fescues are water-loving, cool-season plants that are rather shallowly rooted and low in energy.
  • All fescues tend to produce sterility both above ground and underground in the area where they are growing.
  • Managing for fescue tends to quickly decrease biodiversity and total plant biomass, and to lower system energy.
  • Managing for fescue stops new soil development.
  • Managing for new fescue varieties results in system failure following a short period of mediocre gains.
  • Managing for fescue results in managing for low to moderate production at high cost. This has never been a success and will not be in the future.

I recently read that a Midwestern university had produced another Ph.D. from the fescue research realm. That expert’s research says to not graze fescue severely. Folks, this ain't right, as the truth is that there are times when cattle love to take the plant into the dirt. Also, if you have more than a 25-40% stand of fescue this is likely the best way to increase plant biodiversity free of charge and bring the fescue under control out in the pasture.

Alan Newport, Walt Davis and I have, and I’m sure will continue to, address the issue of low plant starch energy as the No. 1 production limiting factor and decreaser in the cattle business. Low plant mineralization and low starch energy are also the No. 1 cattle health problem out on the pasture. Fescue farming might not be enemy No. 1, but it is at the front of the pack. If you grow lots of fescue of any kind you will not make lots of money for long periods. Also, you will not have much wildlife or grow new black soil. Both are indicators of forward progress, and help cattle and pasture production and cattle health, plus build new soil.

The right answer is to grow huge amounts of highly diverse biomass (carbon) in the form of tall, warm-season (C4) plants. We need tall, medium and short grass with a mixture of legumes, forbs and brush. A small, cool-season (C3) component in the mix is a plus. If some of it is fescue, that is perfectly okay, but it needs to be a small amount.

Successful grazing requires some real plant maturity (often brown) at grazing. Positive system increases and health requires high-density, severe grazing, and cattle impact followed by complete plant recovery. We call this boom and bust management.

My advice is to leave some of the new research findings at the university. It is extremely hard for people to see facts or anything else that jeopardizes their paycheck or career.

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