The Solution to Fescue Toxicosis is Discovered at Last!

I recently got an email from a colleague asking me if I had heard of the new protein tub with a feed additive that is the ultimate solution to the problem of fescue toxicosis.  I followed up and looked at the advertising and at the research that evaluated the supplement product containing the newly discovered technology.  After a careful review of the information I found that this “solution” is just another thing you can do that might help partially mitigate fescue toxicosis, but that doesn’t nearly solve the problem.  There is not enough research available with the new additive to clearly understand how much of a response you might expect, but what little research there is suggests that the benefit to performance would be small if there is any benefit at all, and it certainly would not be a very economical approach.  I am actually embarrassed that the “University Researchers” that worked on this product can live with their work being twisted into such misleading advertising. 

This experience was like déjà vu, and made me reflect on the very many years we have struggled with this problem, and the countless “solutions” that have been proposed and explored.  There have been very many compounds that have been suggested to help including ivermectin, niacin, implants, binders (yeast cell wall), trace minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids, etc.  Eldon Cole, a regional Beef Specialist in Missouri, has been keeping a list of all the things that have been proposed to help with the fescue problem, and that list has grown to well over 100 items, none of which really solve the problem. 

Some of these solutions do help sometimes, especially things like just feeding a concentrate to improve cattle performance, adding clover, etc.   However all create added expenses that take away part of all of the benefit of the added response, and many give the same amount of response if you were on tall fescue or other grasses (as is the case with clover).  While many continue to have hope that the ultimate antidote will be discovered, those of us that have been working on this for 30 years or more realize that this is just not going to happen.  Even promising approaches like seeking out genetic tolerance to the toxins are expensive and not really practically available to farmers at this time.

To understand why we might never see a magic bullet that allows grazing toxic fescue without any affects on animal welfare or performance, let’s dig a little deeper into what is causing the problem.  The tall fescue wild-type endophyte, found in most of the Kentucky 31 stands across the US, produces a variety of toxins called Ergot Alkaloids.  These toxins are found at high levels when the forage is actively growing, especially in late spring when seedheads are developing, and in the fall when growth resumes after fescue’s summer slowdown. 

Ergot alkaloids are nothing to play with.  This group of toxins influences many of the metabolic processes in the body because they mimic important compounds that interact with many different receptor types in the body.  Remember that humans have struggled with exposure to ergot alkaloids for centuries, including the disease described hundreds of years ago called “Saint Anthony’s Fire”.  The toxins in those days commonly came from infected grain, and caused people to have a terrible burning sensation in their hands and feet, caused by the choking off of normal blood circulation.  In extreme cases blood flow is cut off enough to result in the loss of the extremity.  This condition is analogous to Fescue Foot, one of the most extreme results of fescue toxicosis.

Joe Davis, one of our South Carolina farmers that has struggled with fescue toxicosis over the years gave the analogy at a conference one time that feeding something to try to counteract the impact of these toxins is akin to teaching your kids to safely smoke cigarettes.  His point was that it can’t be done! Somethings are just too bad to overcome with simple approaches.  The latest additive, based on hot chili peppers, just raises false hope among farmers that a simple solution will eventually be discovered.

So, if these toxins are so bad, how do so many cattlemen find a way to be successful on a toxic fescue base?  They have developed a management system that takes advantage of what we call “incremental improvement”.  Each thing you do that has a small benefit can add up. If you do enough, eventually performance can be improved to where your cattle business can survive.  Many farmers have switched to fall calving, graze or clip to control seedheads (where the toxins concentrate), use a good quality mineral supplement, use some energy and protein supplement, and select for cows that seem to get along better with fescue than others.  Unfortunately, while these practices can allow you to survive, all these approaches add additional costs to the system every year.  Also, during the worst times of toxin exposure the cattle still visibly suffer which is not good for them or for our own mental health.

At our farm in Southern Virginia we have used many of these approaches to keep our farm running, but it is a constant battle.  We finish many of our calves for the local market, and unfortunately it takes a lot of feed to get them as fat as we need them.  To try to help us meet our production goals we decided to kill some of our toxic fescue pastures and plant annuals that we could put the finishers on.  We also use the annuals to improve the performance on our replacement heifers.  It didn’t take very many years for us to realize how much tall fescue had limited the performance of our cattle.  Heifers grown through the spring gain over two pounds a day on ryegrass and over 1.5 lb/day during summer on crabgrass or other summer annuals.  They calve in great body condition and require very little feed.  This has made a big impact on my thinking because I am really getting tired of the daily toting of feed to make our system work. 

So back to my title.  I am serious that The Solution to Fescue Toxicosis Has Been Discovered at Last.  The thing that keeps us holding on to toxic tall fescue is that the plant is so rugged and able to withstand drought and heavy grazing.  We need grass first and foremost to make our systems work, and toxic tall fescue does provide a lot of growth.  Unfortunately again, that observation is partially because the cattle just don’t want to eat the forage.

The ultimate solution to the problem is Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue and other non-toxic forages.  While implementing this technology is more difficult than just putting out a supplement tub, it completely solves the problem because you are removing the toxins from the system.  Again to the analogy of smoking cigarettes.  What is the ultimate solution?  You quit.  Hard to do? Yes, but I did it 4 decades ago and after I got past those terrible cravings, my health has undoubtedly benefited dramatically.

As we move our farm into the future we continue to kill more and more of our toxic fescue pastures to replace them with non-toxic forages.  We have plans for some more pure novel endophyte pasture, some complex mixes containing novel endophyte tall fescue, and also for native warm season grasses.  My goal is to have a system where I don’t have to carry supplemental feed to our developing heifers, and to minimize the amount of feed it takes to finish our fat cattle.  As I age, it is harder and harder for me to carry feed….I can move fence easy, but those 50 lb bags are getting a little bit difficult for me.  I want to continue to farm for many years into my old age, and I need to do it on forages, not with a lot of external inputs.

As I age, I also don’t want to go to bed at night knowing that I am allowing my cows to suffer from these terrible toxins.  I love my cows, and how they feel greatly impacts my mood.  If they are miserable I am miserable, and I am beyond accepting that. 

Unlike the many “solutions” on Eldon Cole’s list, Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue has given very consistent responses (increases from 0.5 to 1 lb/day in average daily gain) with a significant benefit in virtually every study.  Some fear that the Novel Endpohyte Tall Fescue stands will not last, but again nearly all the research done (and it is a lot) shows that these new tall fescue varieties with proven non-toxic endophytes are very strong and aggressive, just like the toxic fescue we are accustomed to.  None of the other items on Eldon’s list can hold up to scientific scrutiny the way Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue can.

Most importantly, unlike “incremental improvement” which continues to cost you money every year, the cost of converting fescue pastures pays back after several years, after which you continue to enjoy the benefits of non-toxic forage for the remainder of time the stands last, which in our experience is indefinitely with average grazing management.  Also, unlike the annuals that we have depended on, you don’t have to go on buying seed every year, and doing all the spraying and planting that goes into an annual program. 

So, if you raise cattle on a toxic tall fescue base, be aware that the Solution to Toxic Tall Fescue has been discovered, validated by University Research, and made available to you through normal seed industry channels.  While we still have questions about how to best fit Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue into various forage systems, there is no question that as progressive cattlemen assess their options, more and more will realize that they can revolutionize their forage system if they will address fescue toxicosis by removing fescue toxins from the system.  As you ponder the latest “solutions” offered up in advertisements, realize that nearly all these approaches will be expensive and give you only a small improvement.  Don’t let the false hope that there will be a silver bullet in a bag of supplement that will totally eliminate the problem.  There is only one true silver bullet and that is Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue.

~ Matt Poore, for Amazing Grazing, Carolina Cattle Connection.

This article is a preview of an article written for the Carolina Cattle Connection


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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