Tall Fescue Control

Learn more about Tall Fescue

Both tall fescue and meadow fescue are common cool-season pasture grasses in Missouri. They will be referred to here collectively as fescue. These tall, coarse grasses have short creeping rootstocks and grow in heavy clumps with erect stems 2 to 5 feet (0.6 to 1.5 meters) tall. They often form dense, solid stands. Leaves are 4 to 5 inches (10.1 to 12.7 cm) long, smooth on the undersurface and usually rough above. The erect panicles are usually 2 to 10 inches (5 to 25 cm) long and often nodding at top. The panicles are somewhat narrow and contracted to slightly spreading. Flowers occur in flat, oval spikelets that are 0.3 to 0.5 inches (6 to 12 mm.) long. Usually, six to 12 individual flowers occur in each spikelet of meadow fescue and four to five flowers are in each spikelet of tall fescue. Grasses, in general, are fairly difficult to identify, and fescue should be accurately identified before attempting any control measures. If identification of the species is in doubt, the plant's identity should be confirmed by a knowledgeable individual and/or by consulting appropriate books.


Fescue has been spread widely by cultivation throughout most of the U.S. and southern Canada. It now occurs throughout Missouri, with tall fescue being the more common of these two pasture grasses in Missouri.


Fescue occurs in a variety of disturbed habitats including pastures, abandoned fields, roadsides, grazed woods, and along railroad tracks. It can tolerate a wide range of moisture conditions and is common along some levees where it is often planted, and stream banks. Where it occurs in natural communities, it has often been spread by horses and cattle through manure.

Life History

These hardy perennials were introduced from Europe and are commonly sown for pasture and hay. They do well on poor acid soils and often are found where there is little competition from other species. Fescue grows best in open sunlight and spreads primarily by seed to form dense solid stands. The heavy clumps have thick mats of roots that make it almost impossible to pull them out of the ground. Fescue emerges early in spring and often forms new growth in the fall after the seed matures in July and August. In southern Missouri, the leaves usually stay green all winter. These grasses are slow to become established, but once the heavy clumps are formed, they are difficult to eradicate. As the density of fescue increases at a site, species diversity decreases, partly due to allelopathic substances. It can withstand trampling and heavy grazing by livestock.

Effects Upon Natural Areas

Fescue occasionally invades open natural communities, such as prairies and glades. In a few places, it is changing the species composition and possibly is crowding out native species. This alien plant has the potential to become a significant problem because of its adaptability to poor sites, allelopathic character, and difficulty of eradication.

Control Recommendations

Recommended Practices in Natural Communities of High Quality

Effort in areas of heavy infestation

On native prairies with a major invasion of fescue a late fall application of Roundup (10 gallons of spray containing 1 quart of Roundup and 6 ounces of surfactant) can be used to begin control of the fescue. Hand held sprayers or wick/wiper applicators may be used. Application should take place after several killing frosts and a subsequent warm-up period. Residual vegetation should be removed the year prior to the application by a mid to late July haying or by some other method. This will prevent an excessive buildup of residual vegetation by the fall of the following year that would limit the exposure of chemical to the fescue. Rest the prairie the year of application allowing the native vegetation to complete its normal cycle so it will be dormant prior to the application date.

Scout the prairie just prior to the application date to make sure prairie species are dormant and fescue is active due to a warm up period following killing frosts. If some prairie species appear to be photosynthesizing consider delaying the application or expect some damage to those species. By law, herbicides may only be applied as per label directions.

Consider a prescribed burn the spring following the herbicide application to further damage remaining fescue and reduce competition for native vegetation. This burn should probably take place between April 1, and April 20, when fescue is actively growing and native grasses have just begun to show new leaf material. Native vegetation should put on a lot of growth and provide further competition for fescue trying to rebound during the summer and fall period.

Effort in areas of light infestation

Late spring prescribed burning should help eliminate young plants. Repeated burning for two to four years may be needed to achieve good control. Spot applications of 1 to 2 percent Roundup applied with a hand-held sprayer or wick applicator in early spring or late fall may help if prescribed burning is insufficient. Spot applications of Fusilade 2000 (according to label instructions) may be effective following a burn. Fusilade 2000 selectively kills grasses and does not kill broadleaf plants. Do not spray so heavily that herbicide drips off the target species. A few isolated clumps may be dug up by hand.

Maintenance control

Surrounding seed sources must be eliminated where it is possible to prevent seed from continually moving into the natural area. Livestock should be kept out of the area, because seeds are spread in manure. Seedlings and young plants that invade should be eliminated by hand digging or spot applications of either 1 to 2 percent Roundup or Fusilade 2000, according to label instructions the first year.

Recommended Practices on Lands Other Than High-Quality Natural Areas

Initial effort in areas of heavy infestation

The site should be burned in late spring and can then be sprayed with 1 to 2 percent Roundup the following autumn. It may be necessary to burn and spray two or three years in succession.

Effort in areas of light infestation

Late spring prescribed burning helps eliminate young plants and is a preferred treatment. A few isolated clumps may be dug up by hand. Spot applications of 1 to 2 percent Roundup in early spring or late fall are effective. Spot applications of Fusilade 2000 may work best following a burn.

Maintenance control

Same control practices recommended as for high-quality natural communities.

Failed or Ineffective Practices

The following practices should be avoided:

  • Pulling by hand is almost impossible because of the tough root system. Digging up clumps is slow and sometimes undesirable in a high-quality natural area.
  • Mowing does not reduce existing populations and may encourage spreading by root stocks.
  • Fire usually is ineffective when fescue is dormant.
  • Most herbicides are ineffective if applied while fescue is dormant or after mowing.
  • Tillage usually is not an effective way to control any species in a natural area, but may be used in severely disturbed buffer areas.
  • Grazing is ineffective since it usually eliminates other species first and encourages the spread of fescue.
  • Manipulating water levels usually is not practical on natural areas where fescue occurs.
  • No biological controls are known that are feasible in natural areas.

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