Triple Creek Journal: What to do when the tall fescue stands finally thin out

It continues to be a strange year with alternating dry and wet periods.  We were very dry through September and then the last day of the month we had Hurricane Ian come through and leave us 3.5 inches of rain, with a similar amount across most of North Carolina and South Central Virginia.  Since that time we have not had a drop of rain, and things are getting dry again.

Calving synchronized and AI bred heifers is a real pleasure.

What to do when the fescue thins.  Due to a few cold snaps the warm season forages have pretty much gone into decline, at the same time that the tall fescue is jumping.  Most of our farm had a high level of KY31 tall fescue when we purchased it in 1977 with some orchardgrass, bluegrass, dallisgrass, red clover and white clover present in all the pastures.  We fertilized in Spring and Fall and this always resulted in a lot of tall fescue and of course the Tall Fescue Toxicosis that goes along with it.  Once we realized the extent of our fescue toxicosis problem, we eliminated spring fertilization and frost-seeded clover which dramatically increase our clover stands in spring and dallisgrass in the summer. This was really beneficial to our animal performance during spring and summer, and the reasonably good stands of tall fescue still responded well to fall nitrogen application to create a very large stockpile.  We enjoyed this system from about 2000 to 2018.

Four years ago I started working with Dr. Alan Franzluebbers from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and some of the work showed very little nitrogen response on stockpiled tall fescue yield, especially where a high level of grazing management had been in place for a long time.  As a result we stopped fertilizing in the fall and as expected the places where there was a lot of tall fescue grew well anyway.  The winters of 2019/2020, 2020/2021 were very wet, and everywhere the cows were, even for a few days, there was severe trampling and pugging damage, resulting in the loss of many perennial plants.  The reduced nitrogen application and treading damage have resulted in a large decline in our tall fescue plant populations.  Tall fescue has just not been able to compete with the red clover, dallisgrass, Johnsongrass, crabgrass, purple top and other summer forages that make more growth with less nitrogen.  The first year after the really bad stand damage we had mostly crabgrass, but this year we have a lot of dallisgrass and purple top taking over those sites.

We have been trying to do everything we can to not favor tall fescue for two decades, so I should not be surprised that we have accomplished the goal of reducing tall fescue in the mixed swards across our farm.  That outcome seems really great in summer, and in fact with only moderate rainfall this year we still had excessive grass through the summer, and really good animal performance.  Unfortunately, here in the middle of October it is clear we will not have the kind of stockpile we used to grow, and that is going to become more and more obvious as we get into the winter. 

We do still have fields that have a lot of tall fescue, especially those recently renovated to Novel Endophtye Tall Fescue.  As I think about those stands it makes sense to me that I will want to manage those to benefit the tall fescue as much as possible including doing some fertilization when it most needs it (early spring and late summer), doing a good job of grazing management, and making sure that warm season forages are not favored.  We have a lot of land still in annuals, and our long-term plan is to convert those to Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue which we will manage to be tall fescue.  In the balance of the pastures we will continue to manage to benefit plants other than tall fescue, and eventually will likely kill what tall fescue is left with an herbicide to let some pastures be predominantly warm season grasses.

Calving synchronized and AI bred heifers is a pleasure. We are starting our calving season with our first-calf heifers this year, and we synchronized them and bred once AI as we have now done for the last four years.  I was resistant to breeding the heifers AI before that because I just thought it would be too labor intensive to get it done.  What I didn’t understand is how much time and effort it would save me during calving.  Our AI bred heifers are due to calve on October 16 (tomorrow).  For the last week I have been feeding them some concentrate about dark, which increases the number that will calve during the day.  We had no problems until I had an easy pull on the 14th calf last night, and a harder pull on the 17th today.  My neighbor just left after helping me pull that one and even though it was a hard pull the calf is up and nursing and all is well with 17 of 17 born with no losses.  We bred 25 to get those 17 pregnant, a success rate of 68% which is the best we have done.

In the past we spent a lot of time, basically 45 days, checking heifers and pulling calves. We spent a lot of time watching them, but still lost some because it is so hard to watch them 24/7 like we did when I was a young man.  I dreaded calving heifers all year! Our heifer calving is a real pleasure now and I really get to see a lot of calves born and feel better about investing the time as it is for a much shorter time.  It is going to be a lot of fun now working with calving the older cows without worrying about heifers.  Adopting technology like synchronized AI is critical to future success of beef cattle farming.I hope you are also having a great October with your calves coming fast and easy and your winter stockpile growing fast! 

~ Matt Poore, NC State 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

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