Chris Penrose, OSU Extension Educator ANR, Morgan County
If fescue is a problem on your farm, now is a great time to get it under control. I think it is good to start off talking about why it is a problem, how did it get to be a problem, are there some redeeming qualities, and finally, how to get it under control if it is a problem.
Why it is a problem?
If you have “infected” fescue, animals may develop health problems and result in reduced performance. This is caused by a microscopic fungus (endophyte) in the plant that produces alkaloids and problems for animals. Horses can have prolonged pregnancies, little milk production, abortions, and other problems. Ruminants can have hoof loss, increases body temperatures, rough hair coats or fleeces, and other internal issues.
How did it get to be a problem?
Tall fescue (especially Kentucky 31) was quickly recognized in the 1940’s for its conservation qualities of establishing on poor soils and holding the soil. In addition, it was recognized for the year-round grazing value. By 1946, Kentucky growers were harvesting 4,000,000 pounds of seed per year, so a lot was planted.
If you do not want fescue on your farm, the problem of having it happens for a couple reasons. First, infected fescue is insect, disease, and drought resistant. It is also a nitrogen scavenger. This gives it an advantage over other forages, especially on poor soils (which makes it a great crop for conservation purposes). Also, during the grazing season, animals will graze other crops before they will graze fescue. So, if you have poor soils and do not rotationally graze so animals can selectively graze, you are inadvertently selecting for tall fescue.
Are there some redeeming qualities?
As mentioned, it grows well on poor soils and it stockpiles well (stockpiling is making a final graze or clipping in summer or early fall then letting it grow until late fall/winter to graze).
During the fall, several good things happen to the fescue. After a frost, the endophyte levels start to drop and will become less of an issue. In addition, the sugar content will increase, making fescue more palatable for livestock. Fescue is an excellent grass to stockpile due to the waxy coating on the plant allowing it to tolerate colder temperatures.
Yields of over a ton per acre can be expected when stockpiling with acceptable protein levels. When 50 pounds of nitrogen is added when stockpiling begins, one can expect an additional 1500 pounds of yield and an increase in crude protein content (assuming adequate and timely rainfall). The earlier stockpiling starts, the larger the yield and lower the protein content will be when feeding begins. The later stockpiling begins, the lower the yield and higher the protein will be.
If it is a problem, how do you get it under control?
I would suggest a three-step approach. First, get the pH and fertility up to acceptable levels (this is where a soil test is important). Fall is an excellent time to lime fields so it can react with the soil prior to adding fertilizer next year. This will give other forages a better chance to compete with the fescue.
Next, graze the fescue hard this fall and winter. One of the most economical ways to introduce new forages (especially clover) is frost seeding in February and March, but there must be exposed soil. In addition, breaking up the sod cover will allow dormant seed in the soil an opportunity to germinate next spring. On sensitive areas such as along streams or slopes that can erode, this should be avoided.
Another option is to completely reseed a field. To eliminate most of the infected fescue from a field, no viable seed from existing plants should be allowed to develop for at least a year (the endophyte will usually die in the seed after a year). If you plan on reseeding a field (ideally late summer), clip or harvest the field in May before the seeds become viable, kill the vegetation and plant a summer crop. In early August, work the soil or apply a burn down herbicide in prior to establishing a new crop. Any remaining fescue seed in the soil will be over a year old and should be endophyte free.
Finally, if you do not make management changes, in four years you will have the same thing in your field as you have now. Maintain fertility as recommended by soil tests and rotational/intensive grazing will reduce selective grazing by your livestock, allowing other forages to compete more aggressively with fescue.
For many of us, we will never eliminate fescue from our fields, but we can utilize it when it is at its best in the fall and winter, which will allow for more competition from other crops next year. If we can maintain fertility and add other forages to the mix, we should develop a good balance in our pastures and hay fields.