Ruth Correll: Summer fescue toxicosis mitigation

Ruth Correll • Updated Jun 14, 2017 at 5:45 PM

As the heat and humidity of summer sets in across Tennessee, many of the state’s beef cattle grazing endophyte-infected tall fescue may begin to show signs of fescue toxicosis. 

We often hear about the negative aspects of tall fescue, but it’s important to keep in mind that as beef cattle producers in the Southeast, tall fescue is one of our best friends and worst enemies – all rolled into one. Without tall fescue, many of our pastures and hayfields would be far less productive. 

Through the years, there have been many attempts at fix-all cures for mitigating the effects of tall fescue on animal performance. Although some have yielded small improvements in average daily gain or reproductive success, many have yielded inconsistent results. There are some methods, “proven-in-time” so to speak, that are capable of alleviating fescue toxicosis to a substantial degree. These practices are based upon reducing the amount of the compounds that are consumed by cattle, or countering the negative effects that appear following consumption.

Inter-seed a legume. Aside from providing continuous access to shade and cool, clean drinking water, one of the most effective means of mitigating the effects of tall fescue includes establishing and maintaining pasture diversity, primarily through inter-seeding a legume such as red clover. Although this is a highly recommended practice, it must be incorporated long before the onset of fescue toxicosis, as mid-summer establishment of legumes in an existing tall fescue stand is rarely successful. 

Supplement with non-fescue feedstuffs. Mid-summer dilution can be achieved by supplementing cattle with other non-fescue feedstuffs. Daily supplementation with a fiber-based commodity byproduct such as corn gluten feed, distiller’s grains, or soyhulls can mitigate a substantial portion of fescue toxicosis. Commodity blends and other complete feeds, as well as non-fescue pastures and hays can be equally effective.

Clip pastures. Dilution of these compounds can also be achieved by clipping pastures immediately following seed-head emergence. This is possible because the majority of the compounds accumulate in the seed, with much lower and often negligible concentrations accumulating in the plant leaf material. Ideally, pastures should be clipped as high as possible while ensuring that the majority of seed heads are removed. Additionally, clipping stimulates vegetative forage regrowth while reducing weed prevalence. Eliminating seed heads will also aid in pinkeye prevention, as seed heads scratch the cornea of the eye and provide opportunity for invasion by bacteria that are spread by face flies.

Use mineral supplementation. The compounds that result in fescue toxicosis bind to some micro-minerals such as copper and zinc, rendering them unavailable to the animal. This is of critical importance, as the majority of Tennessee pasture forages are deficient in copper and zinc. In order to address this issue, ensure that cattle have continuous year-round access to a free-choice mineral supplement that is fortified with relatively high levels of copper and zinc. Additionally, avoid feeding trace mineralized salt in place of a free-choice mineral supplement, as it does not contain a sufficient amount of minerals to meet beef cattle requirements in almost all forage-based production 

Although there are currently no fix-all cures for fescue toxicosis, these  management strategies have been proven in practice to decrease the negative effects of endophyte-infected tall fescue on cattle performance throughout the summer months. Hopefully time will shed some light upon new technologies or strategies that completely mitigate the negative effects of this forage species that is essential to beef production in the Southeast.. And, as always, ensure that cattle have continuous access to shade and cool, clean drinking water.  (Reference: Jason Smith, Beef Cattle Specialist, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture)

For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson.

Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or [email protected]


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