Fescue is a variety of grass that is often grown as a hay crop in various parts of the United States. The relative merits of fescue as a hay crop are debated among farmers due to the number of challenges that the crop presents. If fescue is not managed properly, the quality of the crop declines significantly.
Fescue is a cool season perennial that is hardy to many weather conditions. Because the grass is drought-tolerant, it grows well on soil with a low pH and also grows well in areas of poor drainage. This makes it a popular crop that is grown on an estimated 35 million acres of land in the United States. Fescue is used as a foraging crop because it stands up to repeated close grazing and grows vigorously at low temperatures.
Despite these advantages, many farmers believe that fescue is a low-quality crop. According to the University of Missouri, this reputation is primarily due to poor management. Because fescue is primarily a cool-season crop, its quality goes down in summer, when the grasses mature. This coincides with the time that many farmers choose to harvest the grasses. Studies have shown that fescue that is harvested during early spring before the grass has a chance to produce seeds is of a higher quality than fescue that is harvested in summer months.
Another large concern among farmers is the toxicity of fescue. Fescue contains a toxin known as endophyte. When the grass is immature the toxin is at low levels that pose no risk to livestock. However, once fescue reaches maturity, the levels of a fungus known as endophyte on the plant raise considerably. The levels of endophyte on the plant are a significant danger to horses. Horses exposed to endophyte toxins show lower breeding and conception rates. In pregnant horses, endophyte reduces the production of milk, thickens the placenta surrounding the foal, prolongs gestation and creates foaling difficulty. Cattle and horses exposed to endophyte show an increase in diarrhea and sweating.
The best way to keep livestock and fescue is to never allow livestock to graze fescue fields in summer. Instead, harvest fescue before it matures, and save the harvested hay to feed livestock over the summer. If you must graze animals in fescue, limit the grazing time to no more than 10 days. You can also seed legumes into a grazing field. Legumes consumed alongside endophyte-infected hay can help reduce the effects of the toxins.
If you suspect that your fescue has been infected with endophyte, you should have the hay scientifically tested. This is the only proven method of identifying endophyte fungus in fescue. Farms dependent on horse breeding or dairy production may have no recourse but to eliminate all fescue from their fields and re-seed with another crop.
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