Managing Fescue

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

both agriculture, but it will probably not benefit wildlife.

Fescue Dominates

Wildlife managers call fescue "aggressive" because it readily invades pastures, old fields and prairies. Once-diverse habitats quickly become fescue monocultures that have much less value to wildlife than a mix of native grasses. Foraging animals, from grasshoppers to cattle, typically avoid fescue in favor of better-tasting plants. As a result, fescue grows larger and produces more seeds than its more heavily-grazed neighbors.

Mature fescue seeds fall to the ground in late June. In early fall, rains allow the seeds to germinate, and fescue fills the empty spaces left by plants that succumbed to heavy grazing or other stresses. The endophyte also helps fescue survive by producing chemical and physical changes in plant roots that help make nutrients more available to fescue than to neighboring plants. The roots of endophyte-infected fescue are also thought to chemically inhibit root growth and function in many other plants, a kind of subterranean chemical warfare called allelopathy.

Endophyte-infected fescue leads to reduced plant diversity which, in turn, means fewer foods for wildlife. A solid stand of fescue fails to provide the variety of pollens, nectars, leaves and seeds needed by the insects that are a critical link in the food chain for songbirds, quail chicks, turkey poults and other wildlife.

Good wildlife habitat includes plants of many different shapes and sizes that provide a diversity of nesting and roosting sites, protection from predators and some bare ground between plants for good mobility.

The dense sod in a fescue monoculture effectively controls erosion, but it provides little protection from predators and no bare ground. You may see an occasional covey rise from the edge of a well-managed fescue field, but overall, wildlife is less abundant in landscapes dominated by fescue than in areas that have a diversity of plant species.

Livestock producers often capitalize on fescue's ability to bounce-back after heavy grazing by increasing stocking rates beyond what would be possible with other grasses. Producers know that fescue will rebound when favorable growing conditions return, but heavy grazing introduces problems for wildlife.

Heavy spring grazing removes potential nesting and brood-rearing cover. Heavy winter grazing removes cover that rabbits and birds need for nesting the following spring. This would not be a concern if just one or two pastures on a farm were heavily grazed once a year, or if this practice was limited to a handful of farms in each county.

Unmanaged fescue also

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