Promoting Novel Fescues with On-Farm Demos and “Sticky Messages”

Toxic, endophyte infected tall fescue acreage is extensive and presents the classic dilemma for producers:  animal health and performance vs. pasture persistence.  One of the Alliance for Grassland Renewal’s incentive programs is “to assist farmers in the costly but beneficial transition from toxic to novel tall fescue”.

Novel fescue varieties have been available for 20 years, yet sales and plantings are annually extremely low as a percentage of total tall fescue seed production.  Since many research programs conclusively demonstrated the problems of fescue toxicosis, and the benefits of converting toxic pastures to novels during that time frame, one needs to look to other causes for low adoption besides science-based information.  Is there something around human cognitive psychology and biases preventing widespread replacement of current toxic pastures with novels?

Extrapolating from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Noble Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, farmers seem to take the complex fescue situation and adopt a simple story for not replacing toxic stands that includes the following biases:

  • I own this pasture, so it is valuable (ownership bias).
  • My stand is long term with green grass most of the year (it looks good; how can it be toxic?).
  • What if my animals are standing in the pond (well, it is a hot day; I would too)?
  • It has many times given a “salable animal product”.

A powerful educational tool to overcome bias and convince farmers to use novels are local, on-farm demonstrations.  Farmers simply believe their neighbors and their eyes.  Demos convey fescue toxicosis symptoms in line with the “sticky messages” concept (e.g., messages that are heard or seen and easily internalized) as described by the psychologist Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point.  On-farm demos disrupt this current simple story and its underlying biases by visually presenting and documenting in the same soils and climate important sticky messages.

Extension specialists and seed companies can assist the replacement decision process by establishing cooperative, on-farm demos in specific regions.  One example of such a demo was a collaboration between Pennington Seed and Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension (Agent Matt Booher and farmer Bud Shaver) using a conversion planting of novel fescue into one-half of a toxic pasture. The handout presented at a field day after two years of use also shows how easily both the following visual and recorded data sticky messages are demonstrated: 

  • Toxic ergot alkaloids are bad, most pastures are loaded with them, and novels eliminate the toxic alkaloids (see alkaloid testing results).
  • Ergot alkaloids are reducing animal performance and costing money (see animal behavior in the photo, rates of gain contrasts with toxic, and economic value of that gain).
  • Replacement with novels is possible and cost effective (establishment budget shows this).

Farmers view replacement as a risk because removal of a good stand of any grass seems so pointless.  Handling animals during a time of less acreage is a common problem.  Overcoming these risks is farmer specific that is best planned individually.  However, a cultural change is needed where producers ask: “What are the toxic alkaloid levels in my current pastures, and if high, are they making me poor stewards of my animals and even costing me money”?  In other words, novel endophyte varieties are the best opportunity to overcome fescue toxicosis; producer mindset is the challenge. 

~ Joe Bouton, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomics, Univ. of Georgia, & Owner, Bouton Consulting Group, LLC, Athens, GA

The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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