This is Part 3 in Greg’s four part series about the trouble with Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue, and how he’s learned to love it. (Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.) Here he describes the management techniques that have made him question moves to try to eradicate it from his pastures.
My Pasture Renovation
First I want to share with you my complete pasture renovation project that I undertook years ago at the advice of forage professionals. I did a complete reseeding on our pastures and put in a 100-acre diverse stand of brome, orchard grass, timothy, redtop and various legumes. I got lucky that fall after everything was planted and got a nice rain. The seeding came up and looked great the next spring. We held a farm walk that summer showing what we had done with this precious 100-acre piece of infected fescue. Everybody at the pasture walk was in awe of how beautiful the pasture looked. I was so happy that I could hardly stand it until someone at the pasture walk made a comment to me privately.
One seasoned grazier crept up to me and whispered, “Greg that is pretty nice piece of grass you have there, but in five years you will have Kentucky 31 tall fescue and clover, that’s about it.”
You could have knocked me over with a match stick! I was shocked that he would dare say such a thing to me. I responded right away, “Oh you’re mistaken! We rotationally graze and will manage these improved grasses so that they thrive on this farm forever. Fescue is history on this farm, it has no use here.”
Well guess what? He was dead right, in five years our primary grass was Kentucky 31 endophyte-infected tall fescue with red clover. I had a good dose of “humble pie.” My pocket book was still hurting from the money that I spent putting in all these wonderful new grasses. In those days, we still had a loan on everything on the farm including the money that we spent on the seed. That was a sick hollow feeling making those loan payments that included the purchased seed knowing that my money ended up in someone else’s pocket and my farm was right back to where it was at five years earlier.
Grazing Management and Culling Make the Difference
Once we switched to mob grazing many years later, we were able to grow many additional species of grasses that were in the soil bank. This rank fescue needs a good beating every now and then with a mob of animal hooves to encourage additional forages to grow in the canopy. This animal impact sets back the fescue enough to allow legumes and other cool season grasses to propagate. But the main grass remains Kentucky 31 endophyte-infected fescue. In the Midwest during the summer months, fescue pretty much goes dormant, but with all the other forage species mixed in with it, our animals still perform well. Fescue is what we have and it wants to grow here, so we figured we better learn to make some money with it. Life is too short to wake up every day trying to kill something.
Back to our cow herd. What we decided was that we were going to graze whatever grew on the farm. We owned no tractor or equipment, so whatever nature dealt us, we were going to manage with that. Whatever animal could not perform on what grows on our farm naturally, would be culled. Absolutely no excuses are made for any animal that fails this test. It was a little harsh starting out. We culled several more animals than we would have liked to in the early years. But we stuck to our original management practice and it has paid huge dividends.
One of the easily observed results from endophyte infected fescue is that some cows will lose their tail switches. The tail switch falls off right at the very tip of the tail due to restriction of blood flow to the extremities of the animal. My good ranching friend Wally Olsen was here this winter walking through our mob of South Poll cattle. In Wally’s prior visit ten years earlier a lot of the older cows were missing their tail switch. On this visit, he immediately commented that almost every cow now had their tail switch intact and all the animals were in super body condition for the winter period that we were in. By staying committed to culling the animals that struggled on the endophyte infected fescue, the remaining animals and their offspring are much more tolerant to the fescue on our farms today. Certainly, having a diversity of other plants in the forage sward helps the livestock perform on fescue as well.
We now have a very fescue tolerant herd, our animals look at their fescue/legume sward and get fat. We occasionally still get an animal that develops a limp (fescue foot), and that animal is sold immediately. I have no tolerance for an animal that will not perform on our forage when they are moved constantly to a fresh pasture of grass/legume sward. We just get rid of them – problem solved. When an animal that is adapted to your farm’s forage has the opportunity to select the best parts of a plant multiple times per day, those animals will make you a very nice living.
Now, think of the money we have saved by not renovating our pastures every five years and gambling it away on a promise of having a better pasture in the future. I may step on some input folks’ toes here, but I am more concerned about the grazier making a living on their land.
Who’s making all the money with farmers killing their pastures with herbicides and seeding these new fescue varieties into their pastures? Hint, it’s not the farmer! We are losing farmers every year at an alarming rate because there is nothing left at the end of the year for the guy on the land that is doing all the work. We take all the risk, they take all the money. Most of the money is going to town, and we need to keep it on the farm where it belongs. To make a profit every year on our farms, we must eliminate inputs which we do have control over.
Stay tuned for next week’s conclusion.