Farmers in the “tall fescue belt” are witnessing a major change in their region. Many of their peers are retiring and selling out, and farmers new to the land have a different outlook. Many advisors have recommended that small to medium sized cattle farmers probably should not be making much if any hay. Many of these new farmers heed that advice. Also, many of these new farmers have high value livestock including cattle, horses, sheep and goats. All of this leads to a growing market for high quality hay. Unfortunately, much of the hay produced in the region does not meet the quality preferences of these farmers.
Farmers looking to purchase hay will find that much of the hay made in the region is low to medium quality and what most of us call “cow hay”. If they have received some education on how to determine the nutritional value of hay, they are usually disappointed in what they can find.
To fit this market a great deal of high quality hay (“horse hay”) is imported into the region from areas north of the tall fescue belt where growing high quality forages is easier, and is part of the culture. Most of this hay is timothy, orchardgrass, or grass/alfalfa mixes. Local farmers have started to explore that market primarily by growing orchardgrass or timothy. With good management they can do well but in most of the region orchardgrass and timothy stands are short lived and need frequent renovation.
The best performing cool season grass in the region is obviously Tall Fescue. However, it is widely known that most tall fescue hay grown is “cow hay” in quality and that it contains the toxins that cause performance problems including low growth rate in cattle and difficult foaling in horses. Cattle farmers have come to expect this and can manage around the fescue toxins. However, many horse and small ruminant owners just reject Tall Fescue hay entirely.
Kentucky-31 tall fescue can make good quality hay if cut on a timely basis. The toxin levels are reduced in the hay during the curing process and that is a plus. Research at the University of Missouri showed that the level of the primary toxin Ergovaline was reduced by about 30% during the curing process (the first 3 weeks after cutting). After an additional decrease during 6 months of storage the result is a 50% decrease overall. Toxin levels declined from about 600 ppb to 300 ppb. This is good, but toxicosis starts to be noticeable when Ergovaline level is about 100 ppb!
The release of good varieties of Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue in the last two decades has great potential to impact the high-quality hay market. This plant produces non-toxic hay and has great agronomic characteristics with the potential for stands lasting indefinitely! Tall Fescue is very responsive to fertilizer applications, but heavy fertilization is not recommended with toxic tall fescue because it increases toxin levels. With Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue, adequate fertilization will not cause a high level of toxins, so it is ideal for growing high yields of high quality hay.
Research at North Carolina State University compared toxic tall fescue hay to novel endophyte or endophyte- free tall fescue hay for growing steers. There were no nutritional differences between the novel endophyte and endophyte- free hay, and both were superior to the toxic hay (which had only 120 ppb ergovaline). The toxic hay was slightly lower in protein and slightly higher in fiber, but in vitro digestibility was similar.
Taking the toxins out of the hay resulted in a 12% increase in hay intake, 7% increase in digestibility, and a 61% increase in nitrogen retention. Projected average daily gain was 1.0 lb/day for the toxic hay and 1.6 lb/day for the non-toxic hay. This confirms that Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue can produce very high quality hay.
In some parts of the region a few farmers have started growing and marketing novel endophtye tall fescue hay. They have found that they can charge a premium over “toxic” hay. Why would farmers be willing to pay a premium for this kind of hay?
Farmers that are in the process of renovation to remove toxic tall fescue from their farms need to purchase hay that doesn’t contain toxic tall fescue seed. Many farmers also recognize the improved performance of animals fed this kind of “non-toxic” hay. Eager hay customers include folks that are backgrounding weaned calves or finishing cattle on high forage diets, or who own some other high value livestock. Horse owners continue to reject “fescue hay” in general, but educational efforts with that audience will continue because of the potential benefit to commercial hay growers in the region. All of this points to a market for Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue, with almost no current supply.
If you grow and feed your own hay, make sure that when you renovate tall fescue hay fields that you convert them to novel endophyte tall fescue. If you grow and market hay, be aware that there is a market for this product that can be explored. If you purchase high quality hay that comes from out of the region, be aware that a significant portion of that high price you pay is for the fuel burned to transport it to you. You should look for local sources of hay that fit your needs whenever possible to help reduce production costs and the climate impact of your horse or other livestock enterprise.
~ Matt Poore, North Carolina State University and Craig Roberts, University of Missouri
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