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Seeking alternative cool season forage

University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture scientists are looking for alternatives to toxic endophyte-infected fescue that costs beef producers millions of dollars in lost or underweight calves.

“Endophyte toxin costs American beef producers up to $1 billion a year,” said Ken Coffey, animal scientist at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. “We know it can cause a 30 to 35 percent reduction in reproduction rate. And those calves that are born will be close to 100 pounds lighter at weaning than those raised on endophyte-free forage.”

“We're looking for other cool-season grasses that can persist in Arkansas and dilute the endophyte toxin intake for cattle,” said animal scientist Wayne Coblentz.

Beef producers had the opportunity to hear about this and other research topics and tour test plots during a recent field day Aug. 9 at the University of Arkansas Livestock and Forestry Branch Station near Batesville, Ark.

“The bottom line is that we want to find alternative forages that will improve reproductive performance, calf gains and weaning weights and improve profitability for Arkansas beef producers,” Coffey said.

Coblentz is studying orchardgrass and endophyte-free fescue in pastures with a bermudagrass base. These grasses typically do not persist well in Arkansas, especially when competing with the very hardy bermudagrass. But he is examining the impact of more intensive grazing management, rotating cattle twice a week on some test paddocks and twice a month on others. He is looking at the persistence of the grasses as well as the difference in performance of the cattle grazing on these and endophyte-infected control paddocks.

“We only have data from one year of a five-year study, but the most promising result so far is that we've been able to keep the less-persistent orchardgrass and endophyte-free fescue in the mix,” Coblentz said. “We're also seeing marginally better performance from the cattle on the endophyte-free pastures, but we don't have enough data, yet, to assess all the variables involved.”

Coffey is using alternative forages in pastures covered predominantly by endophyte-infected fescue. He is overseeding a mixture of crabgrass, lespedeza and red and white clover on some of the steeper pastures on the Livestock and Forestry Substation. He is also using twice-weekly and twice-monthly cattle rotations to help persistence of the overseeded forages.

“I'm trying to use more diversified species that can dilute the endophyte toxin, provide better ground cover to reduce erosion and provide, all-in-all, a better grazing environment,” he said. “We chose test pasture with steeper slopes and rockier soil because this is typical of many Ozarks farms and because, if this works here, it should work anywhere in Arkansas.”

The five-year study is only in its first year, but cattle rotated twice weekly in one pasture showed a 13 percent higher reproduction rate than control pastures where fescue was the only forage.

“Although there was no difference in each calf's weight gain, an increase in births means more calves in a crop and more profit,” Coffey said.

Fred Miller is Science Editor for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

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