At the end of the day, beef farmer Darrel Franson asked fellow farmers at the school if they knew the difference between the three kinds of fescue.
They are toxic-endophyte fescue, endophyte-free fescue and novel-endophyte fescue.
The Tall Fescue Renovation School at the University of Missouri beef farm told the dangers from toxic fescue, the widespread Kentucky 31.
Franson, who converted his farm near Mount Vernon, Mo., to the first novel-endophyte fescue, is a regular speaker at fescue schools.
From experience he told the story of farmer friends who attended the school but bought the wrong fescue to renovate their toxic pastures.
Earlier, other speakers explained that fescue without an endophyte fungus won’t survive under grazing.
“Endophyte-free sounds good,” Franson said. “The farmers tell me, ‘But endophyte-free fescue cost half as much.’”
In the first lesson, Craig Roberts said, “We are going to repeat what you have heard before.” And he did. The story of toxic fescue has been around for decades. But few have converted.
Roberts said toxic fescue costs Missouri beef farmers some $200 million a year. That’s from lower gains, reduced conception rates, less milk production, heat stress and more.
A major symptom occurs when cows lose their hooves in freezing weather. “Fescue foot” is caused by poor blood circulation.
The problems come from a toxin, ergovaline, made by a fungus growing between plant cells of Kentucky 31 fescue. No one can see the fungus without a microscope.
Not only do farmers never see the fungus, they don’t see the losses, Roberts said.
“I get calls from farmers about poor production,” he said. “They describe the symptoms of fescue toxicosis. When I tell them the problem, they say, ‘Oh, I don’t have fescue toxicosis. My cattle aren’t losing their hooves.’”
Fescue foot is the most visible of all symptoms. Unseen are lost pounds of gain or aborted embryos. Toxin also affects bulls, which cuts conception rates.
“We have a cure,” Roberts says. “Replacing toxic fescue with a novel-endophyte fescue can double production. The result is more live calves that gain more pounds per day.”
Decades ago, plant breeders developed endophyte-free fescue varieties. The new fescues didn’t survive without endophyte, which protects against diseases, insects, drought and even grazing.
Franson shared detailed farm records. He found that he repaid renovation costs in less than two years. But that takes management-intensive grazing. “If you need 4 acres per cow, it takes longer for payoff,” he said. Franson runs one cow per 2 acres, or less.
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal has conducted renovation schools in Missouri for four years.
In his talk, Roberts said, “Don’t even consider endophyte-free varieties.”
Endophyte fungus produces a chemical that helps fescue. It happened that the fungus in Kentucky 31, now widely grown, harmed cattle. Other naturally occurring endophytes do not have that toxic effect.
Seed companies found new endophytes to infect their endophyte-free varieties, Roberts said. “You are paying for the good endophyte. New varieties are named for the endophyte they carry.”
Since starting the switch to novel-endophyte pastures, farmer Franson has used different varieties. But, when asked, he can’t name one over the others. “They are all better than toxic fescue,” he said. “I’m not saying that because seed companies are in the room,” he added.
Franson came to Missouri from Minnesota, where he had never seen fescue. However, he soon noted his cattle did not gain well on fescue. As a newcomer, the losses were most apparent.
Other speakers at the school said farmers who grow up with toxic fescue are not likely to note the difference. All of their neighbors’ cows are on toxic fescue gaining at the same low rate.
Longtime research at MU and other land-grant universities shows significant gains when switching from K31 to novel-endophyte fescue.
The school teaches the MU spray-smother-spray renovation plan. For fall-seeded grass, the process starts in the spring.
Help is available from regional MU Extension agronomists. More details are online at www.grasslandrenewal.org.