As we go into the fall of 2008, it appears most areas of the state have received late rains and fall grasses seem to be ready to produce quality forages for cattle consumption.
Fescue continues to be a predominate pasture grass in Alabama and I expect it to be in good supply in North Alabama this fall. Fescue is easily-established, persistent, tolerant of poor soil conditions, drought-resistant and productive under a wide range of temperatures allowing cattle producers to provide abundant amounts of forage almost year-round.
There are, however, drawbacks when utilizing fescue grazing and hay. One is forage quality. While fescue will out-produce other grasses, it will not provide the overall nutrient quality other grasses will provide. The real drawback to fescue is toxicity. Often referred to as "summer slump," fescue toxicity is one of the most frustrating aspects of beef production. The primary cause of the toxicity is a fungus (Neotyphodium coenophialum) that is the same as the fungus causing ergot in cereal grains.
In cattle, death loss is rare, but there are physiological problems typically translating into impaired performance. Animals grazing endophyte-infected grass usually show a combination of the following signs: reduced weight gains, reduced feed intake, intolerance to high temperatures, more time spent in the shade or in the water, rough hair coats, elevated body temperatures, faster respiration rates, reduced reproductive performance and hormonal imbalances. During winter months, restricted blood flow to extremities causing gangrene to occur in the foot, ears and/or tail switch is often referred to as fescue foot. The primary cause of these symptoms is constricting blood vessels preventing cattle from properly regulating temperature and hormonal centers in the brain.
The endophyte is totally contained in the plant and can be transmitted only through the seed. The endophytic fungus overwinters within the plant and fungus growth occurs in the spring as tiller growth resumes on the plant. Since the primary means of transmission is the seed source itself, this explains why a large percentage of fescue pastures are infected.
Research conducted at Kentucky, Georgia and Auburn proves grazing poorly managed, high endophyte fescue will adversely affect overall performance of cattle. Research has proven cattle consuming infected fescue will have lower average daily gains and higher body temperatures. Research in feedlots also implied calves coming into the yard off of fescue-based forages will eat less, gain less and have more sickness throughout the feeding program. The same type results were also proven in studies utilizing fescue hay cut after seed heads were present.
While fescue toxicity has been a real concern, new products along with other management practices have been implemented over the past several years to help reduce the problems. While early-improved varieties lacked insect and disease-resistance, and stand-persistency, new varieties are being introduced showing much more favorable results. Just remember, when an infected crop is to be replaced, it must be destroyed by tillage and/or herbicides.
Another area gaining more attention is in nutritional management. Several products are now available to help reduce the overall problems associated with infected fescue. Research has again proven cattle consuming high levels of the trace minerals zinc, copper, manganese and cobalt provided in a form easily-absorbed showed significant performance improvement over cattle consuming lower levels of these minerals.
Certain products having the ability to bind to the toxin also show great potential in reducing the amount of toxin entering the blood stream.
Incorporation of products supporting proper rumen function, improved fiber digestion and nutrient utilization will also help overall performance of the cow even when she is stressed.
A final area in nutritional management showing favorable results is the incorporation of antioxidants like selenium and vitamin E into the diet of cattle. While this will not totally end problems with fescue toxicity, it will greatly reduce problems associated with fescue grazing.
Your local Quality Co-op has several products available to improve the nutritional program of your cattle. It will carry (or have access to) a variety of Sweetlix® minerals containing elevated trace minerals and chelated minerals that can be provided to your cattle on a daily basis. STIMULYX® Supplement Tubs, with unique formulations designed to reduce the adverse affects of fescue toxicity, are also available through your local Co-op.
As new research continues to provide further information on ways to deal with this problem, I can assure you we will continue to offer new product lines to help in reducing the loss from this toxicity.
My greatest concern this fall is, due to high mineral prices, a lot of producers will utilize a lower-priced mineral or trace mineral salt in their cow herds. I am concerned that by implementing this type of program, we will see a larger number of reproductive failures, unthrifty cattle and poor growth in calves.
In conclusion, fescue has many favorable characteristics making it an excellent forage. A pasture and a nutritional management plan should be implemented to help curb the effects of feeding infected fescue. Your local Quality Co-op has the products and knowledge to assist you in implementing such a plan.
Jimmy Hughes is AFC’s animal nutritionist.