Darrel Franson’s 60-cow beef herd is healthier and more profitable now that he’s converted his 112 acres of pasture from toxic Kentucky 31 to novel-endophyte tall fescue. His calf weight gains average 2.65 lbs/day, up from 2 lbs, while weaning rates moved from 80% to 90%. Fall-calving conception rates increased, too.

“I can sell $100/acre more beef off of novel-endophyte fescue than I can off of toxic because of the gains and pregnancies and absences of a cow blowing a foot off,” says the Mt. Vernon, MO, grazier. “I get a 10% higher weaning weight. That’s six calves per year more.”

Franson bought his farm, called Shiloh Land & Cattle Company, in 1993 while making a career switch from managing a Wisconsin cooperative. After more than a decade of dealing with the effects of toxic tall fescue – including cows losing hooves – he decided to slowly renovate one parcel of land after another.

The only infected fescue his cows now graze is on 16 acres of rented pasture. But he’s even considering renovating that land, even though costs are $180-200/acre and the process is “daunting,” he says.

Fescue renovation will actually cost much less than that range within a year, predicts Craig Roberts, University of Missouri forage specialist. “We’re expecting to see more incentives, especially government cost-share programs. And the seed cost should drop a little because there is not just one cultivar on the market now.”

MaxQ, a Pennington Seed non-toxic-endophyte tall fescue, was released in 2000. New novel-endophyte fescues just moving onto the market are Pennington’s Texoma MaxQII; Estancia with ArkShield, from Mountain View Seed; and Duramax Armor, from DLF International Seeds. BarOptima Plus E34 is the Barenbrug USA offering, called a beneficial-endophyte tall fescue. (See “Novel-Endophyte Fescues Unveiled.”)

Franson thinks people still confuse endophyte-free fescues, which didn’t persist, with novel-endophyte varieties. “It’s amazing the misunderstanding that’s out there,” he says.

But several years ago, Roberts and Clemson University forage specialist John Andrae surveyed state specialists throughout the fescue region, asking why farmers weren’t renovating. Their answer: cost and the amount of work that would need to be done.

“It’s not a straight-forward process of killing out the old fescue and putting in the new,” Roberts explains. “The process we use in Missouri: we spray it (with Roundup), then put in a smother crop, something like pearl millet.” That crop can be grazed over a 2½-month period, then is sprayed out and the novel-endophyte fescue is drilled in.

“The next spring, it’s better not to graze it at all because the cattle just love that new seeding,” Franson adds. “So you’re better off to let that stand get up to hay-cutting height and take a hay crop. He emphasizes the importance of setting cutter height at about 4”.

“The last couple of years on the pieces I converted, I didn’t graze them at all until the stand was a year old.”

Dairy producers see quite a benefit from renovated pastures, Roberts adds. “When you get rid of the toxin and plant anything else that’s nutritional, we expect to see about a 30% bump in milk production.

“We’re expected to see a half-pound gain per day in steers over what you would see in just straight toxic fescue,” he says. With cow-calf operations, spring conception rates should increase at least 10 percentage points, “and that’s very, very conservative. We have seen increases of 40 percentage units.”

Roberts doesn’t have figures on fall-calving herds, but spring-calving herds, if they have 80% conception rates, can look forward to an increase to 90%.

Dairies recover renovation costs the quickest – less than two years. Stocker operations can expect about a two-year payback and cow-calf operations between six and seven years, Roberts says.

For our side story on Franson's grazing technique, see "Don’t Give Your Cattle More Than They Can Chew, Says Grazier."