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Winter Stockpiled Fescue Trumps Hay Every Time – Part 4 – Why I’m Keeping My KY 31

By   /  February 26, 2018  /  9 Comments

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Should we get rid of KY 31 endophyte-infected tall fescue? Greg Judy has said “No” throughout this 4 part series. Here’s his final argument, including all the reasons he has decided to keep his fescue. (Read the rest of the series here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Here’s Dr. E.N. Fergus of University of Kentucky who, in 1931, noticed a patch of grass that seemed especially healthy. From the seeds of that plant he developed Kentucky-31, releasing it in 1943. This variety now covers the vast majority of 35 million acres in the ‘fescue belt’ of the U.S. The key to its success is its symbiotic association with a fungus (known generally as ‘endophyte’) that grows between the cells in the above-ground plant tissue. This improves drought tolerance and the overall health of the plant. The endophyte is also the reason for the problems animals have grazing it. Photo From University of Kentucky

I covered all the negatives of Kentucky-31 endophyte-infected tall fescue earlier, now I will cover the positive aspects of this dirty endophyte-infected tall fescue. First and foremost it is one strong tough grass that is all most impossible to kill.

1. It is here to stay, hate it or not, we have it. I refuse to spend the rest of my life trying to kill something that eventually comes back.

2. The infected fescue is the only plant that I know of that you can trample to death in wet conditions and it comes back with a smile on its face.

3. It develops a very thick heavy sod that will hold up animals in what is normally impossible grazing situations with other cool season grasses.

4. The bottom portion of fescue remains green all winter long if it is not grazed off short. Not many cows will turn down a green plant in a January blizzard. (Just don’t graze fescue shorter than 3-4 inches in the winter.)

5. As the winter progresses the endophyte level in the infected fescue drops which makes it more palatable and better forage for your animals.

A couple winters back I went to move the cows early in the morning, it was 20 below zero with the wind chill factored in. There was 8” of snow on the ground. The 300-head mob of cows were huddled up in a tight ball using the heat from its neighbor to stay warm. They were all nestled down in a draw full of cedars escaping the powerful wind. My face was instantly froze when I stepped out of the truck. My eyeballs kept trying to freeze shut when I squinted my eyes to shield them from the ferocious wind that was ripping down the ridge. I decided to unroll three bales of hay for the mob down in the cedar draw out of the wind. This would allow them to fill up without facing the brutal wind up on the ridge of stockpiled fescue.

After rolling out the hay bales, I decided to go ahead and roll up the next paddock wire division that would give them access to the fresh stockpiled fescue. I thought maybe they might venture out for some grazing after cleaning up the unrolled hay. We had been grazing all winter with twice daily moves and harvesting the fescue buried under the snow with our cattle mob. This new stockpiled strip along the ridge had a hard north wind cutting across it. I took the video below to show how, as soon as the mob saw us heading to the wire reel to expose the next strip of fescue, every cow left the unrolled hay and stormed onto the stockpiled fescue ridge. They immediately started pushing through the snow and ripping out large mouthfuls of stockpiled green fescue. The mob of cows told me real quick which forage they preferred. The hay that was rolled out was darn good 2nd cutting clover/grass mixture hay. But guess what, it was not green like the winter fescue stockpile under the snow. Our cows will take good semi-green fescue stockpile every time over high quality hay, that was beat into my brain that morning. Just remember, cows know best!

We always keep several paddock strips of stockpiled fescue laid out in front of the mob using poly-braid and temporary step-in posts. There are several reasons for this. When winter strip grazing stockpiled fescue you should always plan for the unexpected. By always having strips of forage fenced off in front of your mob, there is a barrier fence to keep the mob from moving any further forward the the next fence. You need this insurance fence to protect your stockpile that is in front of the mob in case the poly braid is accidently knocked down. It is a terrible feeling to find your mob spread over the whole farm on your precious stockpile because you did not have an insurance fence in place in front of the paddock that they were grazing on when the wire was accidentally knocked down. We use no back fence when grazing winter stockpile, it is not needed.

In wrapping up, I really believe it is the biggest money saver for our grazing farms for winter feed in fescue country. If God gave me only one choice for picking out the one single species of grass for our farms here in the Midwest, I would pick Kentucky 31 endophyte infected fescue. There is no other perennial grass species available that will stockpile well enough to keep our entire livestock herd pig-fat from October thru April 1st without feeding hay or supplement. If you have endophyte infected fescue stockpile, it is easy to coast through March – the mud month here in the clay hills. The fescue sod will easily hold them up and feed them at the same time without pugging up your entire farm. We have no sacrifice area for muddy periods. We just open up the size of the paddock and keep moving them.

If stocked appropriately entering the fall dormant season after calculating animal days of stockpiled fescue on your farm, it is possible to graze all winter without feeding any hay. If you think about the fact that your animals are harvesting the forage right where it is grown, no equipment needed, that is a huge cost eliminated. You need to treat your stockpiled fescue like the precious gem that it is. Your cows will be healthier grazing winter stockpiled fescue along with your bank account.

Folks, there is no better feeling in the dead of winter than to turn your livestock into a beautiful, semi-green, lush stockpiled fescue pasture and watch the mob go to work. Everybody else in the neighborhood is feeding hay, your animals are feeding themselves. Just be careful not to graze the fescue into the ground, leave 3-4” of residual when exiting the paddock. This residual feeds the soil life, protects the ground surface and catches rainwater for your early spring growth of forage.

Our goal is to have the animals go to work every morning with a smile on their face and I have a smile on my face watching them harvest the lush stockpiled fescue.

On Pasture author Meg Grzeskiewicz is helping one of her custom grazing clients sell stock with genetics from Greg Judy’s herd.

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About the author

contributor

Greg and Jan Judy of Clark, Missouri run a grazing operation on 1400 acres of leased land that includes 11 farms. Their successful custom grazing business is founded on holistic, high-density, planned grazing. They run cows, cow/calf pairs, bred heifers, stockers, a hair sheep flock, a goat herd, and Tamworth pigs. They also direct market grass-fed beef, lamb and pork. Greg's popularity as a speaker and author comes from his willingness to describe how anyone can use his grazing techniques to create lush forage, a sustainable environment and a successful business.

9 Comments

  1. Richard A Moyer says:

    Greg and all who replied,
    Thanks much for this exchange. Helps us manage our cattle and fescue-mix pastures better.
    Random thoughts from our 12 yrs of selecting cattle for year-round grazing on mostly fescue pastures, culling those few animals who do not thrive, still much to learn:
    —Our animals also prefer pushing through snow for KY-31 over quality hay. Once during a bitter cold snap, I herded them out of a windy north slope with more stockpiled fescue just beyond a wire, and rolled out quality hay on S. slope where just grazed. The lead cows let me know, in no uncertain terms, they wanted back to that N. slope out of sun and into the wind, forget the hay at their feet. I complied, followed and watched with amazement as they lustily pushed through the snow to big mouthfuls of green fescue. Yearling calves, who hadn’t grazed through snow before, had to learn to do this or go hungry that day.
    —Agreed that during summer, KY-31 is last thing my cattle want to eat in the pasture mix; they ask to move on so we comply. During winter, it’s the first they want to eat so we manage for it all winter long. They’ve taught us through observation. Knowing more about seasonal toxic levels, it makes sense. KY-31 their least favorite forage in the summer and ‘go-to’ one in winter.
    —Have heard it said “Push your cows, but don’t be stupid”. I need to be willing to hear when my cattle are pushing back, and act accordingly.
    —Recent, excellent article here (John Marble?) talked about rotational grazing, where more profitable may be the goal of moving every 3-7 days vs diminishing returns of multiple times a day, depending on some situations. I get that; of not being wed to another’s ‘formula’. But in my area of highly variable winter weather, 60F to single digits and back, snow to heavy rains in this ‘fescue belt’: moving every day or two, and checking every day, allows better forage utilization and adequate, quality calories. For us, new stockpiled fescue nearly every day means quality feed every day.
    — But whether I move them or not every day, letting the cattle see me at least once per day, gives them a chance to ‘talk’ back to me. To tell me when I’ve been ‘stupid’ and didn’t give quite enough. Or took a chance and the forage quality/quantity were indeed enough for that day. We’re still working on that “grazer’s eye”, and my kids also give their opinions on how much stockpiled forage to set up for the next day, depending on the weather forecast and disposition of the cows before us.
    —On setting several different polywires at once for stockpile insurance: Yesterday, deer or some critter broke through one strand and drug it into the herd and down the hill. So, agreed on the wisdom of limiting random damage to stockpile, with additional ‘backup’ strands installed where cattle are headed following days. Low-cost insurance; work that would soon be done anyway.
    —At a recent grazing conference, talked with a purveyor of coming genetic tests, to ID which individual animals in a herd most susceptible to KY-31 injury. So afterward, asked when testing might be avail to help manage my herd. He asked what we were doing, our conception rates, etc. Then said if we’re culling appropriately, that might be a better genetic screen than any upcoming test we could pay for. “Why pay me for culling info you can and should be learning anyway, if you’re already managing a herd on fescue?”

    Thanks again, Greg and others in this thread, for helping us explore best uses of the fescue we have, both on land we own and that we lease.

  2. Kathy Voth says:

    Bill Elkins shared this on the 3rd part of the series. We thought we’d add it here because it’s very helpful and appropriate for this part in the series too.

    Some 15-20 yrs ago Jim Gerrish told me how to deal with numerous breeding failures among my heifers and cows grazing endophyte toxic Ky31 fescue . He told me to just cull them, and keep on grazing the rest as we were. This of course selects FOR the tolerant animals as described in Greg Judy’s column. I have also followed Greg’s advice to graze anything that grows naturally in the pasture.. Avoid expensive attempts, including mowing to supress toxic fescue . Our cows selectively grazed around it in summer and leave it for winter stock-pile, which they love. They’re still eating it this Feb, and in good condition.
    Last summer for first time ever. all our young cows and 3-4 yr old heifers with calves at side bred back and gained up to 2.5# /d.. Thus I am writing to confirm Greg’s recommendation to stick with Ky31 iif your breeding herd has been properly selected. thru years. It does take patience.

    • Greg Judy says:

      Bill,

      Glad to hear your culling over the years is now paying dividends in your cow herd! Your right it does take patience and time. There was an old timer that once said, “You will never have a herd any better than what you cull for”. I think he knew what he was talking about.

      Sincerely,
      Greg Judy

  3. Emily Macdonald says:

    I’m new to “On Pasture” and new to grazing. I believe the grass in my pasture, which is the floor of an old apple orchard, never grazed as far as I know, consists mainly of fescue-whatever type has taken up residence.
    I tried grazing lambs there last summer. I noticed that they ate every other plant they could find- the dandelions, chicory, plantain, queen anne’s lace, poison ivy, the odd orchard grass clump and sprinking of red clover etc. and did not touch the fescue. They hated it. I might have been able to force them to eat it by not moving them but I thought that would not be good for their growth, nor for pasture growth because they would likely just overgraze the plants they like which was the only palatable forage the pasture produced. So I moved them to the next patch of “weeds” and mowed the fescue. So my question is do cattle like fescue but not sheep? If so, and I want to graze sheep, not cattle, what would you advise?

    • Greg Judy says:

      Emily,

      We have a flock of hair sheep that we move onto a fresh strip of fescue every two days. We have them trained to respect one poly-braid wire that has 9000 volts in it. This constant movement into new strips of fescue works very well. Our sheep are wintered on fescue and whatever brush, twigs, tree leaves, honey locust pods, buck brush berries, acorns and weed residue that is available. It comes back to plant diversity for sheep as well. Even in the winter with our sheep being constantly moved into a new strip, they perform very well on the dominant fescue. It may be the fact the reason they eat it so well is that it is the only green plant in the pasture in the middle of winter. Our sheep are pig fat with no hay or other supplement. With our past history of flock management, the flock has been culled of any animal that does not perform in their environment.

      Greg Judy

      • Emily Macdonald says:

        Greg,

        Thank you for your reply. If I’m understanding you, the key is to acquire sheep who WILL thrive and perform well on the available fescue.
        I do not yet have my own breeding flock. I bought weaned lambs last year and had to be content with whatever lambs were available in my area. They were aparently not adapted to fescue (or maybe not to grazing at all!). Live and learn.

        Emily

  4. Gene Schriefer says:

    Tall fescue is the preferred forage in fall/winter over all other cool season grasses we can grow in Wisconsin.

    Wonder if Embark PGR (mefluidide) was ever research for reducing endophyte in tall fescue in summer?

    In the 80’s this was introduced as a pasture treatment to prevent seed head formation, which is where the endophyte concentration is highest.

    Sadly grazers are notoriously cheap and not enough product was sold and now pasture use is off label.

  5. John Marble says:

    What struck me about this article wasn’t the thoughtful analysis of the value of KY31, but the seamless demonstration of the true nature of managed grazing. During my second reading I noted these points:
    (My paraphrase, here)

    “I decided to unroll some hay…”
    “I decided to roll up the next paddock fence…”
    “I thought they might wander out…”
    “The mob of cows told me…”
    “Expect the unexpected…”
    “Change paddock size to accommodate wet soil…”
    “Monitor residual and adapt…”

    Observe, decide, respond, change, act. This is what a grazing manager does. For me, this article demonstrates just how far some folks have evolved from the early, mathematically-choreographed days of “Rotational grazing”.

    Thanks, Greg.

    • Greg Judy says:

      John,

      Those are all good points that you laid out for management. It seems the more flexible we remain in our operations by daily observations and being willing to adjust, the better things go for the livestock.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Greg

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