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Managing Fescue

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

Whether your interests tend toward quail or cattle likely determines what you think about fescue. That's because the traits that make this grass good for our rural economy don't always make it good for wildlife.

Biologists say fescue ruins wildlife habitat and strangles native plant communities, and they're right.

Cattlemen claim that fescue saves soil, pays for farms and sends kids to college, and they're right.

Most of our grasslands will likely continue to produce fescue to support a livestock industry that keeps us affordably well-fed, but many acres can also be managed to provide a better living for the people, livestock and wildlife that share Missouri's countryside.

As a biologist, I know a fescue field means less small game and fewer wildflowers, so I've spent a lot of time killing it on public land and helping interested landowners do the same. When I farmed, however, I spent my share of late June afternoons bouncing an old combine across rough pastures, thankful for the income generated by the sale of fescue seed.

Good conservation lies somewhere between the economic interests of one side and the natural resource interests of the other. The key is finding better ways to manage fescue where it is needed, and controlling it where it isn't needed.

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea), usually just called fescue, is a long-lived, perennial grass with growing seasons in spring and fall, and an intervening dormant period that varies with the severity of summer.

Fescue was brought to America from Europe in the late 1800s and now dominates 40 million grassland acres nationwide. Most of the fescue in Missouri is Kentucky 31, a variety developed from seed collected in a Kentucky pasture in 1931. You have probably sown Kentucky 31 on your lawn. Unless you've taken active steps to favor other species, it is likely the dominant grass on your land.

Fescue grows well on a wide variety of soils and persists despite low pH and poor fertility. Individual plants grow as a bunch grass, but aggressive self-seeding quickly results in dense sod. These traits make fescue an attractive choice for lawn, pasture or erosion control plantings, but fescue is especially prized by landowners for its ability to bounce-back after drought or heavy grazing.

Fescue owes much of its resilience to a microscopic fungus, called an endophyte, which lives within its tissues. The endophyte produces, or causes the plant to produce, alkaloid toxins that help fescue wage chemical warfare against grazing animals and competing plants. Fescue plants carrying the fungus are said to be endophyte-infected. Not every plant is infected, but at least 90 percent of our fescue fields contain high endophyte levels.

On paper, the nutritional value of fescue is similar to other forages, but actual livestock performance can be disappointing. Although a clear link between the alkaloids and palatability has not been proven, grazing animals do avoid fescue in favor of better-tasting forages when given a choice.

Animals limited to a steady fescue diet often display higher than normal body temperature and respiration rates, decreased food intake and reproductive problems. The combination of these symptoms is often called "summer slump" because they worsen as rising temperatures make it difficult for animals to dissipate excess body heat. Affected animals spend more time trying to stay cool and less time grazing, which sharply reduces their rate of weight gain and milk production.

According to a 1990 study, losses to the U.S. beef industry from these symptoms top $609 million annually, so it may be hard to understand why cattlemen still favor fescue.

It may be that any income lost due to poor animal performance is offset by the fact that they can stock more animals per acre of fescue. It's also cheaper and takes less time to maintain fescue pasture than pasture dominated by other forages.

In addition, fescue withstands the elements after the growing season ends better than most grasses, allowing it to be stockpiled for grazing well into the winter. Stockpiling fescue saves time and money by reducing the need for feeding hay.

Fescue sod withstands vehicle traffic and livestock trampling, providing a good place for calving and winter-feeding. Also, fescue sod effectively resists erosion and helps save precious topsoil. These qualities make fescue a suitable turf grass, which has generated an entire industry. Each summer, Missouri farmers harvest about 75 percent of the Kentucky 31 tall fescue sold in the U.S. This market produces positive cash flow during the summer, when little else on the farm is ready to be sold.

Plant breeders have developed endophyte-free fescue varieties to curtail the animal health problems linked to infected fescue. However, these varieties are not popular as forages or seed sources because they lack the resiliency provided by the endophyte. Researchers are currently developing fescue varieties that contain "friendly" endophytes that maintain host plant resilience without creating health problems for livestock. This line of research may benefit 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 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, www.missouriconservation.org. 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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