Tall fescue pastures that yield well and survive summer drought, yet don't harm animal growth and reproduction, are just around the corner.

The first varieties with non-toxic endophytes are expected in 2000. They look promising, says Joe Bouton, University of Georgia plant breeder.

"What we've found has been quite striking," Bouton reports. "The animals perform well; there seems to be no toxicity. But at the same time, the varieties seem to have the persistence and other factors farmers want."

Endophytes give fescue its drought tolerance, persistence and other desirable traits, he explains. But endophytes traditionally have produced toxins that cause fescue toxicosis in livestock. Endophyte-free varieties solved that problem, but fell short agronomically.

For example, stands of endophyte-free fescue typically last only three to five years vs. 10 years or more for infected varieties.

According to Bouton, scientists at New Zealand's AgResearch Grasslands Research Center found naturally occurring endophytes in fescue that don't produce animal toxins. Working under a research agreement with that institute, he and his colleagues inserted the non-toxic endophytes into two varieties.

The varieties are Georgia 5 and Jesup, both of which were developed at the University of Georgia. If research findings continue to look positive, versions of Georgia 5 and Jesup containing non-toxic endophytes will be introduced by Pennington Seed, Madison, GA, next year. That company is licensed to market the two varieties.

In addition, Pennington recently acquired North American rights to the toxin-free endophyte technology. Company officials plan to sublicense them to other seed companies in much the same way Roundup Ready and Bt technologies for corn and soybeans are sublicensed.

Several of what Pennington officials call "endophyte-enhanced" varieties could be developed in the next five years, tailored specifically for various regions.

Sonny Pennington, company president, is excited about the technology.

"This is the greatest revolution in forage fescue since the initial discovery of fescue grass back in 1925," he states.

A 14-state survey by the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development revealed strong interest among farmers, according to Pennington.

"We estimate that demand in the first four or five years of commercial availability may exceed our ability to supply this seed," he says.

"On the individual farmer level, it could have a big impact," agrees Bouton. "We're doubling and tripling animal performance. What farmer wouldn't want to get twice as much beef per acre if he can keep the pastures?"

It's estimated that toxic endophytes in tall fescue cost livestock producers more than $1 billion annually in reduced weight gains and in lower conception rate.