Four new tall fescues offer safer options to the endophyte-infected fescue that causes toxicity problems in livestock, says John Jennings, University of Arkansas Extension forage specialist.

And it looks as though producers may finally be seeing the need for them, he adds. Jennings recently surveyed more than 450 producers in his state about managing fescue toxicity.

“Sixty-six percent of producers said, based on what they’ve been hearing about the novel-endophyte fescues from Extension programs, they’d consider planting one. Now, if we can translate that to actual seed in the ground, I think that we will start to see some benefits,” he says.

Today, most tall fescues grown in the traditional fescue belt – from North and South Carolina to eastern Kansas – are infected with an endophyte that produces toxins that lower production and conception rates in cattle, among other things. But that endophyte isn’t all bad, says Jennings.

“The fescue endophyte becomes critical for plant survival when you get it in the Southeast because of the heat and the humidity and competition from warm-season grasses.” That’s why he’s excited about the newest novel- and beneficial-endophyte fescues that withstand drought and pest infestations, offering good persistence without the toxicity threat.

They are, listed as variety, then endophyte, Texoma MaxQII, from Pennington Seed; Estancia with ArkShield, from Mountain View Seed; and Duramax Armor, from DLF International Seeds, which are novel-endophyte fescues, and BarOptima Plus E34, which Barenbrug USA calls its beneficial-endophyte tall fescue.

These new fescues follow a 2000 release called MaxQ, a Pennington Seed non-toxic endophyte inserted into endophyte-free Jesup tall fescue.

“Producers now have good fescue-endophyte combinations that will survive under southeastern U.S. conditions but also give good animal performance,” Jennings says. “Research in Arkansas has shown that, if you graze stocker calves on novel-endophyte fescue, their performance is nearly equal to that of ryegrass. And you don’t have to plant it each year and you will get good fall growth out of it. With ryegrass we typically don’t.”

Yet producers have been reluctant to try varieties with non-toxic endophytes, he says. “A lot of them had experiences with fungus-free fescues. They planted those and found out they didn’t survive. That story is still out in the countryside, and it’s hard to get people to adopt the new technology.”

This past growing season’s extreme heat and drought tested the novel-endophyte fescues. “It was so intense that, if these were fungus-free, some of them wouldn’t have survived. But we saw good survival with the novels.”

To find out if producers see a connection between fescue toxicity and their cattle’s performance, Jennings surveyed them at county production meetings, by mail and online.

Twenty-seven percent said their livestock had problems with fescue toxicity, and 96% of those respondents reported at least one symptom of it. But the rest of the producers surveyed, who said their cattle didn’t have toxicity problems or they were unsure they had them, admitted one or more of those same symptoms, listed below:

• Rough hair coat,

• Standing in ponds,

• Lameness in winter,

• Loss of tail switch, ear tips or rear hoof,

• Panting or salivating in warm weather,

• Low-percentage calf crop or reproduction rate,

• Low weaning weights.

Producers more easily reported the first five – all visual symptoms. The last two symptoms, low calving or reproduction rates and low weaning weights, required measurements to be recognized, Jennings says.

“So that gives us the idea, too, of what producers are doing in calving management.” Long-season or year-round calvings are more difficult to keep measurements of and the likelihood that producers would notice the damaging affects of toxic fescue is lower.

On a discouraging note, only 13% of producers surveyed had replaced toxic fescue with other forages, and only 6% replaced it with novel-endophyte fescue, he says.

“Initial research on all of the new fescues indicates that they’re all better bets than Kentucky 31 fescue (the predominant fescue grown in Southern areas) if you’re really trying to improve your animal performance.”

An Arkansas study of a 63-day spring calving season brought an 83% calving rate for cows on novel-endophyte fescue compared to a 44% calving rate from cows on toxic fescue.

“When they converted some pastures to novel-endophyte fescue so that 25% of the acreage was novel endophyte, so they were 75% toxic fescue and 25% novel – and that’s year-round – those cattle conception rates came back up to 80%,” he says.

Pasturing cattle on novel-endophyte fescue for one month before breeding and the first three weeks of breeding season eliminated toxic fescue’s negative effects on conception rates.

Weaning weights were only improved by 10 lbs when calves grazed novel-endophyte pasture a month before weaning, he adds.

“In the fall calving system, the toxic fescue doesn’t have nearly the impact on calving rates as it does in spring.” That same research shows conception rates at 92% whether cattle were on toxic or novel-endophyte fescue.

Endophyte-infected fescue is more toxic in spring, between mid-May and mid-June and in September, depending on the weather. Besides conception rates and calf weaning weights, it can reduce cow weight gain, body condition and milk production.

Rotational grazing can reduce overgrazing and keep legumes and non-toxic forages available to animals. So, in effect, it can be used to help manage toxicity, according to further Arkansas research. But university experts say not to depend on rotational grazing by itself.

Some producers taking Jennings’ survey are also maintaining mixed pastures using bermudagrass, or they’re adding clover or other legumes. But research shows these practices don’t completely offset fescue toxicity.

He hopes that four more novel-endophyte varieties on the market will send the message that other toxic-fescue fighters are ready and waiting.