I would like to set something straight with this article. I am afraid that our emphasis on taking good care of your new stands of novel endophyte tall fescue have created the misconception that it is a weak plant that needs to be babied to survive. This is true for many alternative forage crops including orchardgrass, native warm-season grasses, teff, endophyte-free tall fescue, etc., ut not for this fescue.
Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue is one of the tougher plants we can put in our system. It can take hard grazing and come back well, as long as it is not continuously overgrazed. This plant also has the characteristic of being moderately competitive with companion plants, making it a good candidate to be the anchor of a multi-species perennial mixture.
At the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, we have stressed the importance of using rotational grazing in managing stands of Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue. This is because any forage plant (with the possible exception of bermudagrass) needs rest between grazing bouts to be at its most productive and to prolong stand life. Continuous grazing will stress plants and leave them with few carbohydrate reserves to promote regrowth and allow competition from “weeds” including crabgrass, that can cause stands to thin.
The most successful programs that use Toxic Tall Fescue graze very hard, which prevents the development of seedheads where toxins are concentrated, and allows the encroachment of those other forage species (which is a benefit as they don’t carry the toxins). Success with toxic fescue includes doing about everything you can to discourage the tall fescue from reaching its potential for production. This does work for many farmers, but pastures often become very overgrazed with high weed populations and there is little potential to stockpile fall growth.
When you are managing a novel endophyte tall fescue stand it is important to leave a 3-4 inch stubble height when grazing, and to allow sufficient rest between grazings. This allows regrowth to at least a 6-8 inch height. In slow growth times this may mean 6 weeks of rest, while in fast growth times it may be as soon as 3 weeks. When grazing stockpiled growth in the winter, it is ok to take those stands down to 2 inches. A back fence should be put up after about 2 weeks to prevent the regrazing of new growth. Not using a back fence during stockpile grazing will not kill the plants, but protecting them will allow your pasture to come out earlier in the spring. Most grazing specialists in our region would make this same recommendation for KY-31 pastures or for Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue pastures.
Many long-term grazing experiments have shown the strong nature of the Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue plant. In our work we grazed the original MaxQ Tall Fescue for 5 years and compared to endophyte-free or toxic Tall Fescue. We didn’t baby any of these pastures because our goal was to stomp the heck out of them during the winter, as that is the expectation in grazing stockpile in the real world. It is not practical to remove animals each time the soil gets wet, so to be successful ,Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue will have to stand up to those conditions. After 5 years of that kind of management, our MaxQ stands were better than they were at the start of the experiment and the stands were better than for Endophyte-free and comparable to the toxic pastures.
It is important to stress that while it makes sense to take good care of any new pasture planting, Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue has what it takes to make the base for a forage system and to withstand the environmental roller coaster ride it will have to take.
During the first year following establishment it is important to not heavily utilize a newly established forage crop. This is the recommendation with any new planting. To prevent overgrazing of the new stand it has been suggested that it should be cut for hay the first year. This is a good recommendation as long as that hay cutting is taken early and the cutting height is kept at 4 inches or above. We have had many experiences with farmers that grazed that first year, and when the grazing is light these stands are often thicker and have less competition from weeds. This is because the tall fescue is encouraged to tiller more and create a more dense stand. If hay cutting is delayed,the plant will not tiller as much, and when the hay is cut there will be more opportunity for crabgrass, foxtail, and other summer annual weeds to get established.
After that first establishment year, it is important that you manage the stands as if they are Tall Fescue. Grazing moderately hard will optimize yield and will encourage the plants to tiller which creates a very dense stand. If you want clover in the stands (and I can’t imagine many situations where you would not) then it is important to graze hard in the winter to make room for frost-seed clover to get established.
I decided to write this article after visiting a couple of farms with new plantings of Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue in the last few months. These farmers were very careful in their establishment, and they each achieved great stands. What I saw was underutilized forage in both cases, and each farmer indicated they were “babying” this grass so they did not lose the stands. In each case the stands were thinning because there was about 12 inches of old accumulated growth,the pasture was clipped at about 12 inches, and there was enough accumulated growth to suppress basal tillers from developing. One of the farmers had put out clover seed by frost-seeding but there was almost no success with that because the pasture was not grazed down short in the winter.
In both of these cases the farmers were worried about killing the stands by grazing it too hard, but in fact the stands are thinning from undergrazing. If Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue is to eventually replace toxic tall fescue in our region it will be because it can stand up to hard grazing and adverse environmental conditions.
So, if it is time for you to start adding novel endophyte tall fescue to your system, remember that while we would recommend that you use rotational grazing, it is tall fescue after all, and can be expected to snap back from aggressive grazing as long as it is allowed to rest before being grazed the next time. Under moderate levels of management Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue stands can be expected to last a very long time if not indefinitely.
Matt Poore, 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