Farm Progress

Time to replace toxic fescue

Alliance for Grassland Renewal plans schools to grow nontoxic, novel-endophyte fescues.

January 31, 2018

3 Min Read
FESCUE DIY: Farmers can learn how to replace problematic fescue with new novel-endophyte varieties by going back to school. University personnel, as well as farmers who have had success with their fescue renovations, will discuss new techniques.

By Duane Dailey

Ways to replace toxic tall fescue pastures keep improving, as renovations move across the fescue belt from Missouri to Georgia.

Five grazing schools in five states in March will clarify a complex system, says Craig Roberts, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.

This started with two schools in Missouri in 2012. Now, a cooperative alliance has refined ideas on how to kill old stands of tall fescue and replace them with nontoxic, novel-endophyte fescues.

“We’ve gone regional — away from a state-by-state approach — to solve a messy problem,” Roberts says. He tells of new schools put on by the national Alliance for Grassland Renewal.

New teaching methods
“Over the last few years we’ve become organized, with help from all sectors of tall fescue businesses,” Roberts says. “Each state had its own councils and its own approaches. Each told different methods, told in different ways. After working together and many conference calls, we became better at what we do.”

At first, a couple of Extension specialists — an agronomist and an animal scientist — would go out to teach. Now there are more people. Those include economists and veterinarians, and representatives of seed companies, nonprofits and testing labs. “We are a task force,” Roberts says.

“The best additions are farmer panels,” he adds. “Successful farmers add credibility. They have converted and profited.”

Fescue refined
Along the way, the alliance learned more of the complexities of fighting toxic fescue. In fescue states, toxicosis costs livestock farmers millions of dollars a year.

The most visible loss is from fescue foot, which kills cows in cold winters. The fescue toxin restricts blood flow to body extremities. In extreme cases, hooves freeze and cows can’t walk to graze.

Bigger losses are in lack of gains during grazing seasons. Also, toxicosis lowers birth rates and cuts a cow’s milk. That makes fewer and smaller calves, Roberts says.

Kentucky 31 fescue is widely used in pastures in the fescue belt across the Southeastern U.S. Fescue was toxic from the start, but it took years to find the problem. A tiny, threadlike fungus, called an endophyte, lives between grass plant cells. It creates a toxin to protect plants from diseases, insects and grazing.

More recently, naturally occurring, nontoxic endophytes were found. Those have been bred into new fescue varieties. They give protection, but not the toxin.

“We help farmers find fescues with the right endophytes,” Roberts says. “All endophytes aren’t alike.”

The alliance offers seed tests and certifies the good novel endophytes.

Eradication of toxic pastures, a long process, has improved. Now the alliance offers three ways, Roberts says.

“The endophyte is a confusing complex,” he adds. “We’re cutting confusion. The problem is real, but not as mysterious now.”

School’s in
For the first time, five similar meetings in five states will be held:

• March 6, University of Missouri, Mount Vernon

• March 8, University of Kentucky, Lexington

• March 13, Clemson University, Pendleton, S.C.

• March 14, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

• March 15, Virginia Tech University, Raphine.

Georgia will join the meeting sites next year.

Local members of the alliance help teach in each state. They explain local conditions.

Details on registration and meeting locations are on the alliance website, The 14-item agenda for the daylong schools also appears there. The agenda starts with toxicosis, its symptoms and causes, and continues through economics, to transitioning from toxic to nontoxic fescue.

“It’s a long session,” Roberts says. “But we keep it to one day. When farmers go home at 5:30, they’ll know the problem and how to solve it.”

The results make big payoffs for farmers who switch.

Dailey is a retired MU Extension professor. He writes from his home in Columbia, Mo.


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