Pasture renovation schools teach how to replace toxic fescue grass

COLUMBIA, Mo. – A drive through grass country in summer shows many pastures with more weeds than grass. To his trained eyes, Gene Schmitz sees pastures needing renovation.

“Many beef farmers don’t see pastures as a crop to be managed. Pastures are just there to be grazed,” says Schmitz, a University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist, Warsaw, Mo.

“Producers should ask, ‘How much grass is there?’” Good grass adds more pounds of beef to be sold. Weeds don’t help.

Resistance to renovation comes from farmers who say, “I don’t want to kill my clover,” Schmitz says. “A close look shows more weeds than clover—or grass.”

Schmitz is the newest member of the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, which teaches replacing toxic Kentucky 31 fescue with novel endophyte fescue. New toxin-free varieties are available.

The Alliance plans four one-day workshops in March. This year, sessions start March 28 in Welch, Okla. That’s the first out-of-state workshop for the four-year-old group.

“Northeast Oklahoma is a hotbed of toxic fescue in cool-season pastures,” says Craig Roberts, an MU Extension forage specialist who grew up in the area. He heads the Alliance teaching team.

Ranchers in northwestern Oklahoma, southwestern Missouri, southeastern Kansas and northwest Arkansas are urged to attend, Roberts says. All near the new location in the four-corner region are welcomed.

The workshops return to Missouri Mar. 29 at Mount Vernon, Mar. 30 at Columbia and Mar. 31 at Linneus.

The Alliance is made up of MU educators, federal agencies, farmers and company representatives. Eventually, they plan to spread the word across the Fescue Belt, from Missouri and Kansas south and east to the Atlantic coast.

Fescue dominates cool-season pastures across a large part of that country. Fescue is productive and persistent grass, Schmitz says.

However, after it became widespread, K-31 variety was found to hold a toxic fungus living between cell walls of the grass. The fungus creates a toxin, ergovaline, which protects the grass from overgrazing. However, the toxin cuts beef gains, hurts reproduction, adds heat stress and more.

New novel-endophyte varieties give relief. Fungi that do not contain toxin are bred into the fescues. Beneficial endophytes protect the grass without making toxin.

Researchers found that tall fescue without endophyte won’t survive under grazing.

“The new fescue varieties work,” Schmitz says. “The first things producers notice: Cows leave ponds and shade to graze during the day. The added gains show up later. That’s the start toward more pounds of beef per acre.”

Renovation does take skill. The workshops explain the benefits of renovation. To start, every tiller of infected fescue must be killed before new seed is planted. Also, infected seed in the soil must be sprouted and killed.

Any infected fescue left in the field eventually takes over.

MU researchers, working at Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station farms, perfected a spray-smother-spray method to eradicate the old before planting the new.

Renovation becomes one of the most profitable practices graziers can adopt, Roberts says.

Details on the schools are at http://grasslandrenewal.org.

Advance registration is required for limited space.

The first school will be at the Cherokee Red Barn café in Welch Okla., starting at 9 a.m. Local contact is Shirley Hudson, 918-542-4576.

Sidebar 1:
Novel-endophyte school dates, places, contacts

Mar. 28, Welch, Okla., Cherokee Red Barn. Shirley Hudson, 918-542-4576 or ottawaccd@conservation.ok.gov.
Mar. 29, Mount Vernon, Mo., MU Southwest Research Center. Eldon Cole, 417-466-3102 or ColeE@missouri.edu.
Mar. 30, Columbia, MU Beef Farm. Lena Johnson, 573-882-7327 or JohnsonL@missouri.edu.
Mar. 31, Linneus, MU Forage Systems Research Center. Racheal Foster-Neal, 660-895-5121 or FosterNealR@missouri.edu.

Sidebar 2:
Schmitz learned to live with popular toxic fescue grass

When Gene Schmitz left western Kansas and came to Missouri, the plentiful green grass year-round impressed him.

“Our grass turned brown,” the former farm boy recalls.

Missouri introduced him to Kentucky 31 tall fescue, the most popular pasture grass in the state and much of the southeastern United States.

In graduate studies at the University of Missouri, Schmitz learned more about fescue. And he became better acquainted managing the first fescue grazing trials at the MU Thompson Farm, Spickard, Mo.

Schmitz came to MU at a good time. Jim Gerrish, forage scientist at the MU Forage Systems Research Center, Linneus, was studying rotational grazing, later called management-intensive grazing. In graduate work, Schmitz spent two summers at Thompson Farm.

He compared rotational and continuous grazing.

It became accepted practice to rotate cattle through paddocks. That boosts daily gains and pounds of beef per acre.

Meanwhile, George Garner, MU agricultural chemist, was studying why fescue caused problems in grazing herds.

“We didn’t know what kept cattle from gaining as fast on K-31 fescue, no matter the system used,” Schmitz says.

Garner found the problem. He identified a toxin, ergovaline, produced by a stringlike fungus growing between cell walls of K-31 fescue.

Researchers also learned the toxin that harms grazing animals also protects fescue. Cattle relish fescue; but after grazing some they back off.

Among other problems, the toxin adds heat stress. The cattle stop grazing to go stand in water or rest under shade trees to cool off. Less grazing cuts gains.

The toxin affected other systems in cows. On toxic fescue, they don’t breed as well. After calving, they make less milk.

Years later, Schmitz and his MU Extension co-workers now conduct field trials with farmers in west-central Missouri. This time, the farmers use new novel-endophyte fescues without the toxin.

Plant breeders found naturally occurring endophytes that do not secrete toxin.

Now, the new fescues that grow well reach new performance levels across the Fescue Belt.

Because of Schmitz’s background in fescue, the Alliance for Grassland Renewal asked him to help. The Alliance, now in its fourth year, promotes seeding and management of fescues with novel endophytes. It is endophyte that is novel, not fescue.

The Alliance will hold pasture renovation workshops in Missouri and Oklahoma the week of March 28. For details, visit http://grasslandrenewal.org.

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