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When Curtis Schallert's 40-year-old stands of Kentucky-31 fescue petered out a few years ago, the Missouri stocker operator decided to renovate his pastures with novel endophyte fescue.
For stocker producers such as Schallert, novel endophyte fescue has become a big deal. The Purdy, Mo., producer buys calves in the 525-pound range and turns them onto fescue. He sells the cattle at an average weight of 850 pounds. They gain 2.25 pounds a day grazing novel endophyte fescue. He has approximately 800 acres of novel endophyte fescue now and runs 800 to 1,100 stockers a year.
"Novel endophyte fescue is a significant improvement for our stocker operation," Schallert said. "My calves gain more weight while consuming the same amount of forage, and we cut 50 days off our grazing period."
Schallert's interest in the novel endophyte fescue was initially sparked by the way his calves tried to cool off in a pond one November day.
"My calves were all muddy from standing in the pond, and I could tell they didn't feel well after grazing the toxic fescue. I can't tell you how much more the calves gain on novel endophyte fescue, but I can tell you there's a big improvement in performance and general animal health," he said.
Schallert rotates stockers through several 20- to 40-acre pastures. He stressed good management is important to protect novel endophyte fescue from overgrazing. But, he added, the value of the forage is worth the extra effort.
Novel endophytes help fescue resist drought, disease, insects and other stresses, and don't produce harmful side effects for livestock. Most stands of the original KY-31 fescue are infected with a toxin-producing endophyte (ergovaline) that can create severe problems for cattle.
Ergovaline causes constriction of the blood circulatory system in the animal. The damage shows up first in the animal's extremities (feet, tail and ears) and, in severe cases, causes cows to have sore feet (fescue foot) or missing tail switches. While sore feet and missing tail switches are obvious, decreased weight gains and reduced reproduction are just as real and much more costly. Other physical signs cattle consuming toxic fescue may exhibit include: rough (fuzzy) hair coats; reduced forage intake; reduced milk production; excessive water consumption; elevated body temperature; and excessive time spent standing in ponds, creeks and under shade trees.
Researchers connected livestock health problems and poor weight gains to fescue with toxic endophyte many years ago. In response, plant breeders released "fungus-free" varieties of fescue.
Unfortunately, in real-world pasture conditions, fungus-free fescue wasn't tough enough, and the stands dwindled. Scientists realized the endophyte protects fescue from pests, drought and overgrazing. So plant breeders went back to the drawing board and "married" tall fescue with nontoxic endophytes that protect plants but don't hurt livestock.
As a result, novel endophyte varieties stand up to heat and pests almost as well as KY-31, but livestock grazing novel endophyte fescue have better reproductive efficiency and higher weight gains.
In cow/calf research by the University of Georgia, average daily gains for calves increased an average 0.42 pounds per day on novel endophyte fescue compared to toxic fescue. Steer weaning weights jumped from 509 pounds per head (toxic fescue) to 575 pounds per head (novel endophyte fescue).
A NEW MAXQ
Marc Green, Winnabow, N.C., was one of the first producers in his state to plant novel endophyte fescue. Cattle here have been grazing Jesup MaxQ for 13 years.