Craig Roberts is impressed with tall fescue varieties that contain non-toxic endophytes.

“In a typical season, these novel-endophyte cultivars could put 200 more pounds on every steer than a 100%-infected toxic-endophyte fescue,” says Roberts, a University of Missouri forage specialist. “That's about $150 more per head. If you're grazing 50 steers, that's $7,500 more income.”

The first variety with a friendly endophyte was introduced four years ago by Georgia-based Pennington Seed. MaxQ was developed at the University of Georgia, which provided the basic germplasm. The friendly endophyte came from New Zealand.

Last year, the University of Arkansas released ArkPlus. It's a variety developed from an endophyte-free fescue strain and infected with a non-toxic endophyte found in the Mediterranean region.

These benign endophytes apparently help the grass resist drought, disease and other stresses, just like the natural one does, but without the side effects harmful to livestock.

“The problem isn't the endophyte itself, it's the toxin produced by the endophyte,” says Roberts. “What goes into these new varieties is a fungus that doesn't produce these toxins but does provide the fescue plant with nearly the same resistance to drought, insects and diseases.

“ArkPlus and MaxQ both produce somewhat thinner stands than Kentucky-31, but that may be partly due to grazing pressure,” he adds. “However, that's not all bad. A slightly thinner stand makes it easier to keep clover and other legumes in it. Legumes are higher in protein and they fix atmospheric nitrogen to help feed the grass.”

Ralph and Curtis Schallert seeded MaxQ when Pennington first came out with seed. In the three years since, the Schallerts have established it on nearly 600 acres of their Barry County, MO, farm. They buy 500- to 600-lb calves and background them to about 800 lbs.

“Cattle do well on MaxQ; much better than on conventional fescue varieties,” says Ralph Schallert. “And whether it's taste or something else, cattle can tell the difference between MaxQ and Kentucky-31.”

Schallert believes MaxQ is almost as persistent as Kentucky-31.

“We've had no trouble keeping it in the stand, but you have to manage it a bit differently,” he says. “The big challenge is to keep cattle from overgrazing the grass.”

Seed cost can be a bit daunting when producers plan to convert Kentucky-31 stands to one of the novel-endophyte fescues.

“Seed ranges in price from $2 to $4/lb, and changes with the supply and the season,” says Roberts. “At a recommended seeding rate of 20 lbs/acre, that makes the bill $40-$80/acre, just for seed. But the increased animal performance will more than pay the higher seed bill.”

“We get a good stand with only 8 lbs of seed per acre,” Schallert reports. Here's how they do it:

“We kill out the old fescue stand, then plant corn or grain sorghum. We plant the grain early and we harvest early, in September.

“After combining the corn or milo, we burn off the stubble,” Schallert adds. “This gets rid of a lot of insects and leaves the ground black, so soil warms up quickly. Then we plant 8 lbs of MaxQ seed per acre with a no-till drill. That's enough if you do it right. But you need to spend some extra time to plan how you'll go about it.”