FESCUE toxicity results in reduced calf weight gain, low calving rates, decreased milk production, shaggy hair coats and lameness, which is often called "fescue foot."
University of Missouri Extension forage specialist Craig Roberts said good beef prices give herd owners a chance to upgrade pastures to remove toxic fescue.
"Replant pastures when prices rise, or you will be stuck with bad grass when prices drop," Roberts said. "Beef profits give a window that is not guaranteed to last."
Kentucky-31 fescue, the dominant grass in Missouri pastures, has a fungus living between the cell walls of the plant that protects the plant but harms grazing animals. Farmers who stick with infected Kentucky-31 fescue will give up potential beef profits in times of low prices, Roberts explained.
However, new novel-endophyte fescues cut losses, he said.
"We've known the problems for years. Now, we have a solution," Roberts said.
New varieties of fescue contain nontoxic endophytes, which still protect the plant but allow grazing animals to thrive, he explained.
"It's important to learn how to plant the new varieties and manage them," Roberts said. "Toxic fescue survived because cows didn't like it, wouldn't overgraze it. They love the new ones."
He said farmers lived with fescue problem for years, but many never saw the losses, except for the often-fatal fescue foot. "When everyone in the area has toxic fescue, the slow-growing calves don't stand out," he said.
At first, farmers balked at buying seed that costs three times that of old fescue.
"Now, the novel-endophyte fescue is affordable, even if higher-priced." Roberts said. "With good prices, herd profits rise with more pounds of calf to sell. Producers must think ahead to when beef prices fall. That's when better profit margins from better calves create more value."
According to Roberts, some cattle producers know how to lower the impact of toxic fescue by diluting the fescue with clover, feeding a grain supplement and using rotational grazing on the paddocks. Additionally, those practices also boost returns with novel endophytes.
Good managers benefit first and the most, he said, adding that they get the quickest payback.
High beef prices make it easier for all to make the renovation. "Now is the time," Roberts emphasized.
Looking ahead, Roberts said he sees beef prices falling and feed costs rising. This is when improved returns from novel-endophyte fescue will help the most. In a price squeeze, good management wins, he said.
Infected hay fields
Toxin-free hay makes establishing toxin-free pastures easier since seed from infected hay reinfects new pastures, according to Justin Sexten, University of Missouri Extension beef nutritionist.
"You must start somewhere, as you can't replace all old pastures at once," Sexten explained. "Start with an area with a big impact on the grazing operation."
A hay field can produce much more per acre with a new novel-endophyte variety. This allows taking other pastures out of production and maintaining the cow herd at the same time, he said.
Infected Kentucky-31 fescue cannot be fertilized to boost yield because nitrogen increases toxin output. With a novel-endophyte variety, adding fertilizer increases hay, with no bad side effects.
"In feedback I get, producers see the benefit of toxin-free pastures, but they often ask how to fit novel endophyte into their system," Sexten said.
He said other starting points can be pastures used for reproduction or weight gain in the beef herd. These include breeding pastures or pastures for growing replacement heifers or for weaned calves as renovated fields improve weight gain.
"The first acre will be the toughest to convert," Sexten said. "You just have to go at it like planting a crop. This isn't as easy as broadcast frost-seeding legumes into grass pastures, but it's not hard to do."
Fescue schools emphasize using proper settings for planting drills. A planting depth of a quarter-inch is critical to success in planting. Adjusting the drill takes time, Sexten said.
"With the price of seed corn, no one goes out, fills the planter boxes and starts planting without adjusting the planter," he said. "The cost is too high not to do it right. Once you begin renovation, additional acres are easier. It just rolls along."
The first step is a big one, according to Sexten, and that's "figuring out where renovation works best."
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal will hold four novel-endophyte fescue schools across Missouri beginning March 30. Each will be held at a University of Missouri research farm that has plots of all available novel endophytes. The varieties can be seen in side-by-side grazing plots.
The alliance, a first in the nation, brings together seed companies, government agencies, testing labs and farmers working with the University of Missouri Extension.
The payoff for conversion is better gains, better reproduction and many more benefits, Sexten said. "Too many farmers do not realize the losses from grazing infected fescue."
Veal quality program
The beef checkoff recently released an updated Veal Quality Assurance (VQA) program, which can be found on the recently updated www.VealFarm.com. The VQA program brings consistency and uniformity to on-farm care practices.
"The updated Veal Quality Assurance program encourages increased veterinary interaction with veal producers," said Wisconsin veterinarian Dr. Vicky Lauer. "This interaction will help decrease antibiotic usage in calves and ensure a quality product for consumers that is free of all residues."
As part of VQA, veal farmers must meet quality production practices in areas such as:
* Calf health and treatment records;
* Barn preparation sanitation for each new herd;
* Barn ventilation, lighting and herd health and safety;
* Calf nutrition, watering and transportation;
* Rules, regulations and laws, and
* Nutrient management.
Lauer said all livestock producers have an ethical obligation to provide for the health and well-being of animals in their care.
"The VQA program allows veal farmers to certify their commitment to that ethical obligation by pledging to adopt a series of quality production practices, complete training and confirm a veterinarian/client/patient relationship."
Program materials can be accessed on www.VealFarm.com.