Over my career, I have seen many solutions to the tall fescue problem suggested, tested, and then eventually shown to be ineffective. I have personally been involved in many studies that tested various feed additives, forage management approaches, energy and protein supplementation programs and cattle with fescue tolerance. While some of this work is encouraging, none of these approaches completely alleviated the symptoms of tall fescue toxcosis, and none have turned out to be the long-term solution we need.
Of all the things I have worked on, Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue, first marketed as MaxQ, is the only one that has proven to completely alleviate all the symptoms including poor intake, low average daily gain, low breeding rate and fescue foot. Despite all the work showing Novel Endophyte Tall Fescues works so well, farmers have been slow to adopt this approach. Renovating pasture is a difficult thing to do for many farmers because of all the planning, effort and capital investment required. It is always easier and cheaper to just keep doing what you have been doing, and this is especially true with perennial pastures. It is simply very difficult to make the decision to renovate a productive perennial pasture even if it is toxic.
Costs and Benefits
Completely renovating a pasture, regardless of what the new pasture will be, is expensive and difficult to accomplish. Thus, an investment of time, energy and cash must be made that will take several years to pay off. We can easily list the costs including the cost of the seed, cost of planting, cost of herbicides, cost of fertilizer and cost of spraying. Don’t forget the less obvious opportunity costs, which is the value of the lost forage production that must somehow be replaced.
There are major benefits of renovation including improved average daily gain, improved breeding rate, and potentially increased forage yield. With all costs and benefits considered, it will take about 5 years to pay off the initial investment. This seems like a long time to wait on an investment to pay out, but once the payback time has come then you can enjoy the benefits of non-toxic grass for the remaining time the stand is on your farm. Will it last that long? With good management we have many fields that last well more than 10 years.
There is actually some good news that helps soften that 5-year waiting time. If you convert part of the acreage to a non-toxic forage and use it strategically to overcome some of the toxicosis problems, then it takes much less time to pay off. The fastest payback will be from your first efforts, so take heart in that.
Also, if the pasture needs to be renovated (as many old Kentucky-31 fields do) then there is a big reduction in the payback time. If you can get an increase in the cow grazing days you get from an acre of grass then your investment will pay off faster.
Renovation of a pasture starts with controlling unwanted seed in the soil. This might be “weeds”, but might also be seeds from more desirable plants, like toxic tall fescue. Controlling both weeds and the seedheads of the existing grasses the year before renovation will make for much better results and will help keep toxic fescue from coming back on your pasture.
There are a number of systems of renovation that have been developed, and the two most common are “Spray-smother-spray” and Spray-wait-spray”. Each of these involve two doses of glyphosate. Spray-smother-spray is implemented in spring and includes a summer annual “smother crop” (like sorghum-sudan or millet). With Spray-Wait-Spray the first application of glyphosate is in late summer, about a month before the second application and planting.
While these renovation systems have been very successful, sometimes it is hard for a farmer to meet all the dates and stick with that system exactly, causing them to decide not to renovate at all. In some cases it might be helpful to the farmer to not worry about that long and detailed timeline but rather just to spray glyphosate on the field when it is convenient and then grow annuals there for several years until the time is right to plant the perennial forages. If you don’t want to use glyphosate then the best approach is to use tillage and a smother crop for several years to kill the existing stand.
Other advantages to Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue
There are some other great benefits to getting the fescue toxins out of animals including improved animal health and welfare. While rate of gain is important to me as a farmer, what really motivates me is improving welfare for my cattle. When I first saw cattle on our farm that had been off toxic fescue all spring and summer it amazed me. They were comfortable standing out in the sun at 90 degrees grazing ryegrass. At the same time the mature cows who were grazing toxic fescue were miserable standing or laying in mudholes they had made in the shade. I will never forget that and it motivated me to spray out more of the old Ky31 pastures.
Novel endopyte tall fescue is also better than KY-31 for wildlife and the environment. The toxins the endophyte produces also have an impact on wildlife that directly consume the plant including dung beetles, deer, small mammals, ect.. Also, water quality and the riparian environments are impacted when livestock eat toxic tall fescue because they loaf in the water to alleviate their heat stress. This is not a normal behavior but is accepted as such because it is such a common sight.
Not Your Daddy’s Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue
Today there have been advances made in the Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue products on the market. The original MaxQ from Pennington Seed was introduced over 20 years ago and it was a great performer. Today Pennington has replace the original endophyte in MaxQ with a new endophyte called MaxQII. MaxQII is paired with three varieties including Jesup, Texoma and Lacefield.
Other companies also have competing products including Martin2Protek and TowerProtek from DLF Pickseed, Estancia with ArkShield from Mountain View Seeds, and BarOptima plus E34 from Barenbrug, USA. Each of these products has it’s own characteristics and you should study some before selecting a variety. A new fact sheet is available from NC Cooperative Extension that tells a lot more about the origins and applications of these great products. This fact sheet can be found at: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/comparison-of-commercially-available-novel-endophyte-tall-fescue-forage-varieties or by just searching for Novel Endophtye Tall Fescue and NC Cooperative Extension.
What about diverse forage mixtures?
One thing we have questions about is whether Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue can be part of a good perennial pasture seed mix. While some farmers will want a pasture that is primarily tall fescue, many believe in the benefits of plant diversity. You might think that if toxic tall fescue was only a part of the forage stand that it would not be as toxic. The problem is that toxic tall fescue is a bully from an ecological perspective. Because animals don’t really like it they eat everything else, making the fescue stronger. Furthermore there are additional mechanisms not completely understood that make toxic fescue dominate in mixed stands. Research has shown that Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue will make a better companion plant than toxic fescue for other forages while still providing the abundant winter grazing that we come to expect from Tall Fescue.
I am a big fan of mixtures as that is what we have on the pastures at home. In addition to tall fescue most pastures have orchardgrass, bluegrass, dallisgrass, bermudagrass, red clover, white clover and many other minor species. If it were not for the toxic fescue these would be really nice pastures. How to convert a pasture like that to a similar mix without toxic fescue is a current topic of discussion.
Just start do something about it this year.
Back to my New Year’s Resolution. I have spent the last 30 years trying to work around toxic KY-31 tall fescue on our farm. It seems no matter what we do, most of our problems are still related to tall fescue. We have killed the KY31 on about 20% of our acres where we are growing annuals and that has really helped us with our heifer development program, but we still have a long way to go. This year I want to kill another 30 acres where we can grow annuals and plant 30 acres to a perennial mix containing Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue.
If you are fed up with the effects of toxic tall fescue too then join me and take action and do something about it this year!
~ Matt Poore, NCSU and chair of The Alliance for Grassland Renewal
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