The Wonder Grass and the Curse of Grazing
Take advantage of its positives to work around its negatives.
By Dave Forgey, Logansport, Ind., firstname.lastname@example.org
In grazing circles, I have heard fescue called both a wonder grass and a curse. Anyone who has fescue on their farm has an opinion about it, ranging between these two extremes. Since I have only a very small amount of fescue on my farm, I don't have opinions to these extremes, and maybe I can look at it with a more open mind than some people do.
For sure, fescue has it's disadvantages. It doesn't graze well in the summer with the endophyte problems, and if you ever slid your finger down a leaf in the summer and felt the prickly side of the leaf then you'd probably understand why a cow would rather not eat it. I've noticed that the razor edge seems to leave after it is frozen in the winter. Perhaps that is part of the reason why the cows eat it better after it has been frozen.
Now I hear about "fescue foot," a condition which affects cows which are on a heavy diet of fescue. Due to blood circulation problems brought on by the fescue toxicity, extremities can die and slough off because of lack of blood.
Trying to breed a seasonal herd in June on endophyte-infected fescue can be a near impossibility. Body temperatures are increased due to the endophyte, and this can cause a fetus to be aborted or keep eggs from being fertilized. This is considered a very minor problem in the northern fescue areas. But as you move south the problem intensifies. Even an experienced New Zealand dairyman transplanted to the southern fescue belt shakes his head in disbelief of the beautiful grass that the cows don't eat well in summer.
Then comes winter in the southern fescue belt. Along comes soft soil conditions, except in heavy fescue sod where the thick root mat keeps the cattle up out of the mud. Supplemental feeding can be done on fescue sod with break fences being moved every day. The cows stay clean and the manure is all deposited in the field instead of on a concrete lot where it must be hauled away later.
With proper management, the heavy trampling weakens the fescue sod and bares the soil in some areas. The exposed soil is helpful for early frost seeding of legumes, especially clover which establishes itself quickly in the spring. The influx of legumes dilutes many of the problems that fescue causes as summer progresses the following year. If you winter-graze a third of your fescue each year, you can improve the stand with clovers and reduce the fescue problems. Since most clover stands need improvement every two or three years this works well to allow reseeding.
In the northern fescue belt, the ground freezes. No matter what is growing, you still have free concrete all winter long until that spring thaw. That's when fescue comes in handy to get you through the mud, and it still lends itself to frost seeding of legumes to improve the plant diversity. Like with most everything, there are positives and negatives. With fescue, if we can take advantage of the positives, we can work around many of the negatives.
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