"Endophyte toxin costs American beef producers up to $1 billion a year," says Ken Coffey. "We know it can cause a 30-35% reduction in reproduction rate. And those calves that are born will be close to 100 lbs lighter at weaning than those raised on endophyte-free forage."
"We’re looking for other cool-season grasses that can persist in Arkansas and dilute the endophyte toxin intake for cattle," adds Wayne Coblenz.
Coblenz is studying orchardgrass and endophyte-free fescue in pastures with a bermudagrass base. Orchardgrass and non-toxic fescue usually don’t persist well in Arkansas. But he’s studying the impact of more-intensive grazing, rotating paddocks twice a week or twice a month.
"The most promising result so far is that we’ve been able to keep the less-persistent orchardgrass and endophyte-free fescue in the mix," says Coblenz. "We’re also seeing marginally better performance from the cattle on the endophyte-free pastures, but we don’t have enough data yet to assess all the variables involved."
Coffey is overseeding endophyte-infected fescue with a mix of crabgrass, lespedeza and clover, and is using twice-weekly and twice-monthly rotations to help persistence of the overseeded species.
"I’m trying to use more diversified species that can dilute the endophyte toxin, provide better ground cover to reduce erosion and provide, all-in-all, a better grazing environment," he says. "We chose test pasture with steeper slopes and rockier soil because this is typical of many Ozarks farms. And because, if this works here, it should work anywhere in Arkansas."
After one year of the five-year study, cattle rotated twice weekly in one pasture showed a 13% higher reproduction rate than cattle in control pastures where fescue was the only forage.
"Although there was no difference in each calf’s weight gain, an increase in births means more calves in a crop and more profit," says Coffey.