May should be the best month for a grazier in our region. You never know about April; where we are on the NC/VA border, April often “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” just as the saying goes. We usually can enjoy turning out by April 15. The first couple of weeks after turnout are really good for the cows, and we move quickly to get them to eat the boot stage seedheads of the tall fescue. They really love to have green grass when they have been eating the same hay for months on end. As it turns out I usually love April 15 to May 1 as I can quit feeding hay, start getting hay equipment ready, and the weather is usually pretty gorgeous.
In fact, while that April grass is really appreciated by the cows, they suffer a little from the high moisture content (it is “washy”) which can make them pretty loose, and the increasing toxin levels in the KY-31 tall fescue that dominates our farm. To help with these problems we try to continue unrolling some hay for them to tighten them up and to stretch the grass until things really start to grow in May. During the month of May we usually have plenty of moisture, we are beyond the potential for cold nights, and cool season forages really hit their stride. The availability of forage is usually pretty high, and “on paper” the forage is of optimum moisture, protein and energy content. So, May should be our best month. It is when it comes to our cattle that are on non-toxic forage, either ryegrass, orchardgrass, or novel endophyte tall fescue.
For our cows that graze predominantly toxic fescue, however, May is probably the worst month. Any body condition gained during the spring green up period is lost, and especially the 3-year old cows that have been on non-toxic pastures the previous year can really crash. We calve in the fall, so the cows are mostly bred and will maintain those pregnancies, but their calves start pulling them down, and they really don’t feel like eating. The calves themselves start losing some condition as well, as they are not getting as much milk, and they are eating more grass and also suffering directly the effects of the fescue toxins.
When hot weather hits the cows are especially vulnerable to heat stress because they have poor circulation due to the vasoconstriction caused by the fescue toxins, and they have retained their winter hair coats. If you try to breed cows under those conditions you will have very poor results, so most folks in tall fescue systems have changed to fall calving, even though that means feeding lactating cows through the winter.
I have some friends that grow cattle for the same local beef program that we do, and they calve in the spring (March and April). That would be a disaster on our farm, but they have built their system around annuals and novel endophyte tall fescue. Their spring-calving cows calve in nice weather, and in May when the grass gets at it’s best, they have early lactation cows that really make good use of it. When breeding season comes around in June and July, the cows are slick and fat, and they have no problem getting them bred! For them May truly has a chance to be that best of months when the cows are easy to care for and to feel good about while you get busy making hay. Those same friends have created a commercial hay program as well, catering to the horse industry, and they have a great market for their novel endophyte tall fescue hay.
We struggle like many of our friends and neighbors to deal with the tall fescue problem. We understand the problem and the possible strategies to deal with it, but it is a really tough problem to face. Our fall calving program has kept us in business despite the toxic fescue, and it is possible to just live with the problem. But, we need to be honest and admit that we keep cows mostly because we love cows and all that the cattle farm can bring to our lives. As I look at my cows during May, I am reminded that I am not really very good about looking out for their welfare if I am satisfied with letting them go on eating toxins.
We have partially converted our farm to non-toxic forages, and as I have said before, I love looking at the cattle on the non-toxic pastures this time of year. We have had a poor year for annuals (as I wrote about last month), but we do have adequate ryegrass for the replacement heifers, and they are fat and slick and standing out in the sun at 85 degrees, so I know it is possible on our farm. My problem is letting everyday tasks and the challenge of just getting through each day distract me from working on the real problem we face; toxic grass.
This year I am going to keep focused on my New Year’s Resolution and do more about our fescue problem than I have in the past. I am going to sell half the cow herd to make room for an accelerated pasture renovation program. I have been working hard to control fescue seedheads this spring so I don’t have to worry about seed carryover, and we will get the fertility up this summer where it needs to be on the fields we plan to plant to novel endophyte tall fescue in September. I can now imagine a May without fescue toxins, and I am looking forward to seeing that before I run out of time to enjoy it.
How do your cows look today? Your answer just may be “not as good as I would like”, which is quite likely if you have KY-31 tall fescue and are honest with yourself. If that is how you are feeling, kill enough toxic fescue sometime this year so you can graze a sample of your cattle through the spring on non-toxic forage. Once you see your cattle off toxic forage you might be convinced that getting away from toxic KY-31 tall fescue is the way for you to go too.
~ Dr. Matt Poore, NC State
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