Novel fescue by the numbers

Becky Mills for Progressive Forage | Published 31 January 2020

undefinedJoe Davis is a numbers man. His brain is full of them, and every gigabyte of his phone and two laptops is crammed full. So naturally, when it comes time for the retired chemical engineer to answer a question or solve a problem, he turns to figures. “I don’t like to deal with ‘kinda’ or ‘it depends,’” he says.

In 2004, the Westminster, South Carolina cattleman’s numbers told him too many of his cows were open. “I knew enough to know 65% preg rates weren’t good business and sent all my data to John Andrae.” He also knew enough to call the right man for the job. At the time, Andrae, who is now Clemson University experiment station assistant director, was the forage agronomist at the University of Georgia (UGA). Andrae enlisted the help of UGA professor emeritus Carl Hoveland.

When Hoveland was at Auburn University, he discovered Kentucky 31 fescue harbors a toxic endophyte that negatively impacts cattle health and performance. It puts a “whammie” on fertility for both cows and bulls, cuts down on milk production, hits gains and constricts the blood vessels in cattle. That, along with the rough hair coat it can also cause, means cattle have trouble handling heat in the summer. Cold weather can bring fescue foot. In severe cases, their hooves can actually slough off.

“I had just planted Kentucky 31 fescue in a pasture. When Dr. Andrae and Dr. Hoveland asked me what I had planted, they just said, ‘Oh no.’”

After Hoveland’s research came to light, forage breeders figured out a way to remove the toxic endophyte from the forage. However, they later found that same endophyte gave fescue its hardiness. The endophyte-free version simply didn’t hold up under grazing pressure and drought. Fortunately, their next step was finding a way to take the toxin out of the endophyte while leaving the hardiness factor in place.

Davis is convinced. When all but 190 acres of his 460-acre operation were in novel endophyte fescue, his conception rates had risen to 75% to 80%, but that wasn’t good enough. “I had a group of 50 cows, but some were first-calf heifers. We were breeding them in April and May, when the Kentucky 31 had seed heads.”

The University of Missouri extension state forage specialist Craig Roberts says that’s when Kentucky 31 is at its worst. “Most toxin is down in the bottom 2 inches of the plant most of the year, which is often grazed, but it is in the seed heads when it has seeds.”

Those conception rates, along with data he collected on his stocker and finishing calves from his 160-cow Angus-Brangus-Simmental cross herd, convinced Davis to convert or plant the rest of his pastures in novel endophyte fescue.

Joe davis's Angus-Brangus-Simmental cattle
Joe Davis’s Angus-Brangus-Simmental cattle wean heavier calves on novel endophyte fescue. Photos provided by Joe Davis.

He says, “With novel endophyte fescue, you are going to get 50 to 75 pounds of additional weaning weight.” This is in spite of the fact that all the calves were on novel endophyte fescue during the preconditioning and stocker phase.

Now his conception rates are also more to his liking, even though he and manager Mike Hall synchronize and A.I. breed the whole herd before they turn the bulls in 10 days later. The total breeding season for heifers is 45 days, and 64 days for cows. Conception rates are in the 90s, while the number of live calves born per cow exposed is in the 80s.

Even with all the advantages, converting a pasture from Kentucky 31 fescue to novel endophyte fescue is neither for the cash-strapped or impatient. Davis estimates costs per acre at around $650. He says $165 an acre covers the actual inputs, while the replacement forage for the time the field is out of commission runs around $485 an acre. He says, “We estimated we got 35% of our usual forage production the first 12 months and 75% the second 12 months.”

However, for the most part, he was able to convert pastures for less than $650 per acre because he was in the process of getting more efficient with fertilizer use, weed control and management intensive grazing on his established pastures, and was clearing additional land and converting it to pasture. Also, since he had fewer cows for part of those conversions, his hay bill wasn’t as steep.

Davis estimates his payback time is five to six years at the most but says, “I really believe it is closer to three to four years.”

If you aren’t in a position to convert all your pastures, Missouri’s Roberts recommends converting 25% to novel endophyte fescue and using those acres for your spring-calving cows. However, he jokes, “It is a gateway drug.”

Matthew Burns, Clemson University beef specialist, says it is also a case of “first things first.” He says, “Producers have to be willing to do the small things right. They need to have a defined breeding season, take soil samples and get the basics of grazing and beef management down. Those things can make a bigger impact on their operation.”

Davis agrees. “Conversion to novel endophyte fescue without good management practices in herd health, managed grazing and controlled breeding is a waste of money,” he says. “However, novel endophyte fescue is a key factor in the improvements in our operation.” 

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