Eastern Kansas farmers should rethink tall fescue for grazing, agronomist says
By Tom Parker
Okay, so tall fescue has a bad rap. It has, shall we say, a checkered reputation. And for good reason, too. The cool-season forage could be a livestock producer’s best friend or it could be a killer-literally-depending on circumstances. Sure, it was known to host a toxic endophyte that could introduce summer slump syndrome in cattle, or reduce the conception rate among cows, or even cause colts to be born without hair or the ability to suckle, but that doesn’t mean that it should always and forever be purged, banned or excluded from grazing practices. Times change, and things change, too, right?
Today’s novel or friendly-endophyte tall fescue has all the benefits of the old, toxic tall fescue and none of the detriments. Producers would be well advised to distance themselves from well-deserved but outdated grudges and give it a second look, says Gary Kilgore, Kansas State University Emeritus Professor in Forage Science, who will be lead presenter at the Eastern Kansas Cool Season Grazing Wisdom workshop on Tuesday, November 3, in Lawrence.
The workshop, sponsored by Amazing Grazing III, a collaboration of the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Graziers Association, will include research findings on species trials and performances of cool-season grasses by Keith Harmoney, Range Research Scientist for the Western Kansas Agricultural Research Center and Professor of Range Science at Fort Hays State University.
“Fescue has a lot of merit, but for most producers it’s a matter of getting over pre-conceived ideas,” Kilgore said. “Young people starting out will halfway listen to you, but older folk are very skeptical. But we have lots and lots of research that proves that novel endophyte fescue is a viable forage.”
Kilgore’s passion is cool-season grasses, and much of today’s research findings can be attributed to his 40 years as the Southeast Kansas Area Agronomist. And while the focus of the workshop will be on cool-season grasses such as smooth brome, orchard grass and tall fescue, all predominantly used in the eastern half of the state, much of what is covered could be applicable to producers in other parts of the state.
“For the most part, the use of cool-season grasses for forage is statewide,” he said. “Most of the irrigated circles that are grazed in central Kansas are cool-season grasses, and in parts of western counties cool-season grasses are irrigated for fall and winter grazing.”
Another alternative is rye grass, which is used in the southeastern part of the state. It, too, can be very effective, Kilgore said, though it isn’t widely used outside of that area.
By using both warm-season and cool-season grasses, livestock producers can create a year-round grazing program that when properly managed will save money and provide a more nutritional feed source for cattle, he said.
“It’s much cheaper to graze an animal than it is to haul hay for them,” Kilgore said.
Fescue is often overlooked for fall and winter grazing. Kilgore’s research has shown that tall fescue retains some green all winter long while smooth brome becomes brittle and yellow. “Even when brome is present,” he added, “I encourage the use of fescues.”
Legumes such as red clover and alsike clover are excellent for diversifying forage and to extend the summer grazing period, he said. When incorporated into cool-season grasses, legumes reduce fertilizer requirements and provide important proteins that improve animal health.
Participants will learn about friendly-endophyte tall fescue and how it can fit into grazing programs, hay production, grazing times, cool-season grass management and the correct stubble height necessary for healthy pastures.
“There haven’t been a lot of changes in the use of smooth brome or orchard grass, so we’ll be emphasizing management techniques for cool-season forage practices and the overall use of tall fescue,” Kilgore said. “There might be an ‘a-ha moment’ in there for even the most experienced producer.”
Producers who are are just starting to manage cool-season grasses or are thinking about establishing cool-season grasses for grazing or hay would probably elicit most information from the workshop, Harmoney said, but experienced producers could benefit from Kilgore’s breadth of knowledge.
“Gary has so many years of experience that long-time graziers of cool-season grasses would probably still get some new or different useful information from him at the workshop,” he said. “He’s an encyclopedia of cool-season grass management knowledge.”