A match made in heaven
By Doug Rich
Producers who depend on fescue as their primary forage are looking for a match made in heaven. A match that unites a productive fescue cultivar with a novel endophyte that is nontoxic.
K-31 tall fescue has been the predominant variety in many areas for years. It is a productive variety that is able to survive hot summers, cold winters, and heavy grazing, but it contains a toxic endophyte that reduces animal performance. An endophyte fungus between plant cells in K-31 produces an alkaloid toxin that reduces rates of gain, milk production and conception rates and cuts blood flow to an animal’s extremities.
Darrel Franson, a producer from Mount Vernon, Missouri, first encountered this problem when he moved from Minnesota to Missouri and began raising cattle in 1993.
“When I came here in 1993 and discovered that all these beautiful fields of grass were poisonous, I could not get my head around that fact,” Franson said. “I grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota and our main grasses were cool-season grasses, but nothing was toxic.”
At first Franson tried to mitigate the toxin by adding clover to his pastures, not using too much nitrogen, avoiding seed head production, and developing toxin-tolerant cattle. He was not happy with the results, however.
“I could not tell if gains had improved, conception rates improved a little, abortions were down but still too high, and I still had lame cows,” Franson said.
In 2001 he learned about a nontoxic novel endophyte fescue from a seed company representative and decided to give it a try. Over the next 10 years he converted his entire farm to novel endophyte fescue varieties.
Prior to these novel endophyte fescue varieties many producers had tried converting their pastures to endophyte-free varieties. These varieties had no persistence and could not stand the hot, dry weather and hard grazing. Within two to three years most of these varieties had died out. There was something about the endophyte that made the plants hardy enough to withstand tough growing and grazing conditions.
This led to the discovery of endophytes that are not toxic. Tests were conducted to match these endophytes to the best cultivars. For example, the fescue cultivar Jessup is matched to the endophyte Max Q, the cultivar Texhoma is matched to the endophyte MaxQ II, BarOptima Plus is matched to the endophyte E34, Estancia is matched to ArkShield, and Martin 2 is matched to Protek.
Franson is a member and officer in the Alliance for Grassland Renewal that was formed in 2012 to promote replacing toxic tall fescue with a tall fescue that hosts a nontoxic or novel endophyte variety through education, seed quality control, incentives, and promotion. This group certifies new fescue varieties that meet their specifications. The varieties must be 95 percent pure, have 70 percent viable novel endophyte, promote animal safety, and exhibit plant persistence.
When he converts a pasture Franson starts with the goal of getting a successful stand of fescue. Franson said this means seed in the fall or not at all.
“The reason for that is simple: When you seed in the fall, that plant has two cool seasons to grow before it has an awful hot July and August to live through,” Franson said.
The spring before the new crop is planted Franson sprays the existing fescue with Roundup not too long after it greens up. Franson said to do this early enough that no viable seed is produced in the spring prior to fall seeding.
Franson waits about 10 days and then goes back to spray any strips that might have been missed. Even with GPS guidance systems some spots are always missed. At this time he uses a hand sprayer to get under trees where the big sprayer could not reach and along fencerows.
When the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees Fahrenheit he plants a summer annual. Franson prefers pearl millet. He said it is better to graze this crop rather than bale it for hay because it is hard to dry down. Most years he is able to graze or cut it twice. Franson kills the summer annual no later than Aug. 20.
“Not only am I killing the millet but I am killing any fescue or bluegrass seeds that might have sprouted over the summer,” Franson said. “That is even more important than killing the millet.”
New fescue seed is planted by the first of September. In his area the seeding rate is 17 to 18 pounds of actual seed per acre. Normally Franson said he can expect fall rains to start around Aug. 25 in southwest Missouri and he wants to have seed in the ground by that time.
“If you miss those early rains, you are hurting your chances of getting a good stand,” Franson said.
In early December he sprays the field for winter annuals like henbit and chickweed. There seems to be a never-ending seed bank of henbit and chickweed and they can choke out the new fescue.
The following spring Franson does not graze the new fescue. He will not put any cows on the new grass that spring or summer, but he will take two to three cuttings of hay. He sets the cutter bar at 4 inches high, which leaves some leaf surface so the plant can keep growing. In the fall he lets it grow for a winter stockpile.
“It will make great stockpile for cows and best of all it is toxin free,” Franson said.
Franson suggests only converting 10 percent to 20 percent of your pasture at a time. He said this is agriculture, after all, and nothing is a given.
Franson keeps a very detailed set of records on his cow herd. Comparing the five years before he began to convert his pastures to the most recent five years after conversion, his weaning weights have gone up 85 pounds and his weaning percentage has climbed 9 percent. Franson is so convinced that converting to novel endophyte fescue is the right things to do that he recently converted a rented pasture.
Fescue is an excellent forage made even better by matching the right cultivar with a livestock-friendly nontoxic endophyte.
Editor’s note: If you would like more information about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal and upcoming educational events go to www.gasslandrenewal.org.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.