Alliance holds schools to detoxify Missouri's K-31 fescue pastures
Kentucky 31 tall fescue covers the ground well and resists insects, drought and overgrazing. But this most widely used pasture grass in Missouri has a flaw. “Common fescue is toxic to livestock,” said Craig Roberts, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.
At the MU Forage Systems Research Center, Roberts was first speaker in a daylong school on how to detoxify pastures. An earlier school was at MU Southwest Center, Mount Vernon.
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal aims to remove the state’s most devastating livestock problem.
An endophyte fungus between plant cells in K-31 creates an alkaloid toxin, which cuts rates of gain, milk production and reproduction. Those are unseen symptoms. It’s not just cattle but also horses, sheep and goats.
Of less impact, but more visible, are loss of hooves, tails and ear tips. The toxin keeps calves from shedding hair coats in summer. That adds heat stress.
The Alliance was formed by MU and federal agencies in cooperation with seed companies that grow patented fescue varieties that don’t have toxic endophyte.
“Everyone who has a part of the solution is part of this Alliance,” Roberts said. “That includes seed companies, but also farmers who switched varieties and helped production.”
“Almost always, dairy farmers are first to see need for change,” Roberts said. “Endophyte grass cuts milk output at least 20 percent per day.”
Darrell Franson, farmer from Mount Vernon, Mo., changed his pastures, one by one, over 10 years. Average weaning weight of his calves increased from 504 to 622 pounds, “with no more creep feeding,” he said.
Since 1995, conception rates on Franson’s cows went from 81 percent to 95 percent. The motto for his beef farm: “It’s the grass.”
“Before I switched to novel endophyte, a third of my cows lost their tails,” he added.
Roberts said the fescue toxin is a vasoconstrictor. It restricts blood flow. In winter, frostbite hits the extremities. In summer, core body temperatures rise. Lack of blood flow affects heating and cooling.
“When you see cows standing in ponds instead of grazing, they are trying to cool down from the toxin,” he said.
Dave Davis, Linneus, superintendent of MU FSRC and school host, laid out “The Plan.”
“We want you to succeed,” Davis said. “There are right ways and wrong ways.”
The plan requires more than seeding a new novel-endophyte variety. Every sprig of toxic fescue must be killed out of the pasture first.
MU researchers perfected a spray-smother-spray replacement plan.
For fall seeding of a pasture, start this spring. It would be better to have started a year ago. “Don’t allow K-31 go to seed,” Davis said. “You must eliminate surface seed but also soil bank seed.”
This spring, after fescue emerges and is grazed down, spray K-31 with herbicide. Plant a summer annual crop to be used for feed. That’s the smother crop, which crowds out emerging seedlings. In August, after smother-crop harvest, the field is sprayed again. “There are no shortcuts,” Davis said.
Only then the field is drilled with a new variety. No-till is urged.
Over the waiting period, the field is limed and fertility brought up to MU soil-test levels. Liming early is one key to success. That releases soil fertility to tiny grass seedlings.
As with any newly seeded pasture, tender care must be given the first year. Take the first crop as fescue hay, not grazing.
“Give the new grass every chance to succeed,” Davis said. “Success depends on management and following the plan.”
When it says 15 pounds of seed per acre, use 15 pounds, not 11 pounds, Davis said. Use the herbicide and fertilizer rates, also.
The plan is based on MU research at FSRC and Southwest Center. “And on farmer experience,” Roberts added. “It’s science and technique.”
The class toured plots of new varieties growing at FSRC. Davis seeded them Labor Day week, a year ago. They will be grazed in the coming year.
“The study will measure hardiness and for any toxicity,” Roberts said.
Wrapping up, Davis said eradicating old K-31 stands and proper soil fertility are essential.
Tim Clapp with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Macon, Mo., explained how farmers can apply for federal dollars for pasture renovation. However, he warned, funding is uncertain.
“Apply now, early in the year-around signup,” he said. “Visit your local USDA FSA office soon.” Awards are made in January.
The 2013 fescue schools were trials for more schools next year, organizers said. Fescue schools are based on the MU grazing schools.
For details, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org.
The MU research centers are part of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.