When your plow is a pencil…

Dwight Eisenhower said “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you are a thousand miles from the corn field.” With that as a caution, I am going to foray into pencil farming for just a bit. At a recent meeting I was asked what I would plant if I could start from scratch. There are an infinite number of ways to answer that, but what follows is my response.

First, I considered what I was going to do with the field. I decided that I would advance two different options, first all pasture and the second a cash hay option. Further, I limited myself to options that I know that I personally could accomplish, pencil farmer though I am.



What forage would you plant if you had a clean field to work with? The options are numerous. Performance and economics have to be considered, as well as the limitations of the manager. Photo by Dr. Jimmy Henning

For pasture, I decided that a clean field with no history of toxic tall fescue was the perfect opportunity for a field of novel endophyte tall fescue. Novel endophyte tall fescues are a combination of fescue genetics with that of a naturally occurring endophyte that does not produce the toxin ergovaline like our native Kentucky 31. These varieties have been around for almost 20 years or more, and have been shown to establish well all across the fescue belt.

These varieties have been shown to be persistent under Kentucky conditions, except where they have been overgrazed during summer. There are several fields that are approaching 10 years of age with exceptional animal gains.

Most in Central Kentucky will know Robert Hall, or Mr. Bobby as he is fondly called. Going to his farm near Stamping Ground in Scott County is like going to a grazing clinic. Mr. Bobby has several acres of novel tall fescue with and without clover which have produced better than two pounds of gain per day on six weight heifers. I don’t know if my own grazing skills can hang with Mr. Bobby, but novel tall fescue can support profitable cattle gains, even with my management.

On my pencil farm, I did not have to deal with transitioning from toxic tall fescue, which takes good management. We can successfully transition from toxic to novel tall fescue, but we must ensure that the toxic plants do not make seed the year of establishment and are completely killed prior to seeding the improved forage.

Thinking about getting started in the hay business makes me face my limitations. I know some good alfalfa producers that can work miracles in the hay field. And I am not one of them. I am sure I could grow it, but getting it harvested in a marketable form is still a bit of a challenge for me.

For my hypothetical hay field, I chose timothy. Why timothy? For several reasons. First it is in demand by horse owners across Kentucky and beyond. Second, it has a later harvest window than orchardgrass, which was a close second in my mental debate over what to plant. This later harvest window increases the chance that I will have decent curing weather to make dry hay. The presence of a seedhead is actually a positive for timothy as it easily recognizable by almost all horse hay buyers. Yes, harvesting at the head stage will mean lower crude protein and digestibility. However, mature timothy can be useful for a large segment of the mature horse population with just a little commercial supplementation. Timothy is a short-lived hay crop, producing for only two or three years, but is relatively inexpensive to re-seed.

You may never get the chance at a clean start on a pasture or hay field. If you do, novel endophyte tall fescue and timothy can be excellent choices. Even though I am truly ‘pencil’ farming, I certainly don’t assume farming is easy. But it is fun to pretend what I would do, which is a whole lot easier than the real thing.

Happy foraging. ~ Dr. Jimmy Henning for Farmers Pride, April 15, 2021


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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