Reducing fescue toxins in pastures
Missouri forage producers should begin removing seed heads from tall fescue grass pastures soon to reduce toxic endophytes that thwart herd health and profits, says University of Missouri Extension state forage specialist Craig Roberts.

Seed heads typically emerge by mid-May in most of Missouri’s tall fescue pastures. They contain five times more ergovaline than leaves and have little nutritive value, says Roberts. In early summer, seed heads can also become infected with ergot, a highly toxic fungus that grows on the seed. Ergot infects most grasses and small grains, not just tall fescue.

 There are several ways to remove seed heads: 1. Baling before seed heads form; 2. Clipping seed heads and resetting paddocks; 3. Chemical spraying.

 Early hay production lets the plant rebound and produce new leaf growth. Clipping paddocks allows the grass to stay in a vegetative, leafy state longer. Clipping results in grasses that are higher in nutrition and digestibility.

 Use a management-intensive grazing system that encourages cows to rotate through small pasture paddocks. Don’t let cattle graze too short.

 Fescue toxicosis costs Missouri’s beef industry more than $160 million each year in reduced weaning weights, conception rates, daily gain and milk production. Cattle run high internal body temperatures and respiration rates and experience reduced blood flow, which can cause lameness and loss of hooves in the winter.

 Studies show that clipping seed heads increases average daily gains in stocker cattle and improves pregnancy rates and calf weaning weights.

 Producers needing to build reserves of baled hay depleted by hard winter should harvest early and often.

 May is a better hay month than June and far better than July.

 With the lack of warm weather, hay developed slowly this spring. Kallenbach estimates yields fall 25 to 30 percent behind normal.

 Lack of sunshine caused thinner stands. The plants grew tall, but the grass didn’t thicken, putting out fewer tillers. “The undergrowth is just not there,” Kallenbach says.

 While yields may seem low on the first cuttings, an early harvest will allow stronger second cuttings.

 Kallenbach advises cutting high-quality hay while it is available. Quality hay will be worth more as feed next winter.

 Warm days in the third week of May boosted forage yields. In the first week of May, rising-plate-meter readings showed only 70 pounds of dry matter per day per acre.

 “With warmth, and lots of moisture, we’re getting 140-pound dry-matter readings,” Kallenbach told regional specialists in a weekly teleconference.

 Jim Jarman, extension agronomist, Fulton, Mo., reports fescue seed heads are emerging. “It happened quickly in the warm weather. The forage quality will diminish by the minute.”

 Kallenbach says he’s seen seed heads on orchardgrass.

 “Hay should be harvested before seeds set,” Kallenbach reminds producers. When seed heads emerge, the grass transfers proteins and sugars from leaves into the seeds. That lowers nutrient content in hay harvested after seed heads emerge.

 By making a first cutting early, more grass will grow for the second cutting. “We can grow a lot of hay between now and Memorial Day,” Kallenbach says. That regrowth can be cut for hay, or grazed longer into the warm months of June and July.

 Once the weather gets hot, cool-season grass growth slumps.

 “Once grass matures, and seed heads fill, it stops growing. But if hay is cut before seeds set, the grass keeps adding leaves.”

 When asked about making alfalfa hay in July, Kallenbach said, “It won’t be dairy-quality hay, but it will be better than other hay made in July.”

 Craig Roberts, MU Extension specialist, said this year might become a year for ergot to appear in seed heads of pasture grasses.

 Ergot, a poisonous fungus, replaces seeds in the grass heads.

 “Ergot causes lameness in grazing cattle. Stocker calves eating ergot stop gaining,” Roberts says.

 Kallenbach encourages high-level management of hay this year.


“We’ll need the hay,” he adds. “Many acres have been taken out of forage and planted to crops. High prices for commodities take away hay land.”

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