January 23, 2002 | By: Laura Skillman
BOWLING GREEN, KY

Tall fescue is the most important cool season grass in Kentucky with approximately 5.5 million acres grown in the state.

Of that fescue about 85 percent is infected with an endophyte that reduces performance in animals. It is estimated to cause $60 million to $75 million in annual losses in the state.

Since discovery of the endophyte, research efforts have been under way to develop strategies for reducing or eliminating its effect in animal production including endophyte free varieties. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has an active breeding program to develop improved tall fescue varieties, said Garry Lacefield, UK forage specialist.

Several of these varieties are on the market today, he said. There is a marked difference between varieties in their persistence, yield and seeding vigor, so farmers need to look at test trial information in determining which variety or varieties they want to use, he said.

More recently work is being done in New Zealand and Georgia on varieties containing a friendly or "novel" endophyte. Scientists are trying to find a fescue that has a friendly endophyte allowing the plant to have the toughness and persistence of an infected tall fescue but with the animal performance of a non-infected fescue.

The variety Max Q is the first on the market, and Lacefield said other varieties are sure to be available in the future. Research is taking place at UK on friendly or novel endophytes and endophyte free varieties of tall fescue. Reach and extension programs are also under way to help farmers manage tall fescue, endophyte, animals and the environment.

Trials on grazing tolerance and yield comparisons are being conducted on Max Q in Kentucky, Lacefield said during the Forage Symposium in Bowling Green. The symposium was held at the beginning of the annual meeting of the Kentucky Cattlemen's Association.

While research is ongoing to find better fescue varieties, there are some things farmers can do to minimize the impact of the fungus.

Lacefield said four major strategies can be used.

Managing to minimize the effect means a grazing or clipping system that keeps the plants young and vegetative and results in better animal performance. For hay, cutting fescue in the boot stage results in better animal performance.

Using endophyte infected fescue in the spring and other grasses or grass-legume mixtures for summer grazing will avoid the endophyte during the summer when fescue forage quality is low and the endophyte effect is the highest. Feeding a hay of another species can also be helpful.

Growing legumes with infected fescue is a good way to dilute the endophyte. Many studies have shown improved weight gains and pregnancy rates when pastures are renovated to include legumes. This has been the most important strategy for effectively reducing the endophyte effect for most cattle producers.

The fourth option is to kill the infected fescue and replant with another grass or grass-legume mixture, endophyte free or a "novel" endophyte variety. A farmers needs to remember to select a variety that is adapted and has been proven in variety tests.

Contact: 

Garry Lacefield, (270) 365-7541