Managing Fescue

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

causes problems for wildlife.You may have noticed how difficult it is to walk through a mature fescue field. Now, think how hard that would be if you were a cottontail, or a thumb-sized quail chick. The solution is to "weaken" fescue by disking, burning or grazing it. Rotary mowing is not the answer because it makes fescue even thicker, eliminates overhead protection from hawks and owls and destroys the few broadleafed plants that could have provided seeds and insects to feed a hungry brood.

Economic realities dictate some management regimens when it comes to livestock production, but wildlife would benefit greatly if more landowners managed their property--large or small--with an eye to wildlife needs.

Fescue is most harmful to wildlife when it is overgrazed, mown flat or left in an impenetrable tangle. If you live on a few acres, or if you own land just for recreation, eradicating fescue is probably your best first step toward increasing wildlife habitat. Replace fescue with native warm-season grasses and forbs, or mixtures of wildlife-friendly cool-season grasses and legumes. Trade in your brush hog for a drip torch and a small disk to keep open areas prime for wildlife. Plant food plots, and leave some areas idle for beneficial native plants. Build brush piles and plant patches of native shrubs to provide extra cover for nesting and protection from predators.

If livestock is your livelihood, eradicating all fescue probably isn't the best solution, but there are some cost-effective ways to improve your pastures for livestock and your whole farm for wildlife.

  • Eradicate fescue from summer pastures and plant native warm-season grass like big bluestem and Eastern gamagrass.
  • Move all livestock off of fescue by mid-June to minimize summer slump symptoms. During the last trimester, move bred animals to cool-season pastures that include a mix of species like timothy and orchard grass. This will minimize reproductive problems and boost milk production.
  • Graze during early spring to stimulate legumes and warm-season grasses. Try to keep most fescue plants below 3 inches through May, then rotate livestock to summer pastures.
  • Reduce the toxic effect of endophyte by interseeding mixtures of legumes, including Korean lespedeza, ladino and red clovers, into all your fescue pastures. Adopting a rotational grazing strategy will help maintain legumes. The extra effort will pay off through increased forage production, better livestock gains, improved pregnancy rates and better wildlife habitat.
  • Burn one or more pastures each year after fescue has reached 1- 6 inches tall. Consider limiting late fall and winter grazing in some pastures. Rotate stock out when no more than half the area has been closely grazed to create "patchy" cover valuable to nesting wildlife the following spring.
  • Manage for wildlife around pastures by killing fescue 30-50 feet out from fencerows, brushy draws, woodland edges and odd areas around ponds that don't receive concentrated water flow. Establish patches of native warm-season grasses, legume and grain food plots, native shrubs, and idle ground in these areas and protect them from grazing.
  • Place temporary electric fences to provide a wildlife nesting refuge for every 40-160 acres grazed. If you practice rotational or paddock grazing, consider delaying grazing in some paddocks before and during peak wildlife nesting seasons (April 1 - July 1).

To learn more about managing fescue on your property, read "Tall Fescue and Missouri Wildlife." You can obtain a copy from your nearest Conservation Department office or or from the Department's Website, Your local private land conservationist or wildlife management biologist can help you plan fescue renovation and grazing options that benefit wildlife. You may also want to ask about cost-share assistance available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Conservation Department or your local Quail Unlimited chapter.

For more information about using native plants on your property, visit the Conservation Department's Grow Native! website.

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