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Grazing grasses & endophyte fescues

 
gardener
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Location: West Tennessee
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I’m starting from scratch with a new small farm. One objective with this farm is to eventually have grazing ruminants, pigs, along with the chickens which we already have and adding guinea fowl to live their lives and help improve soil fertility. I want to talk about forages; specifically grasses & endophyte fescues which grow in the pastures along side legumes and other forbs.

I’m no expert in this, but just walking around my pastures I have identified what I think are a couple fescues, bermuda grass, red and white clovers and hairy vetch, along with other things such as broomsage, some thistles, and other various green things. My neighbor who leased this land from the previous owner and had cows on it for twenty years said there is kentucky 31 on the pastures, and I believe it as it is very common here in the region and has been around for decades. I am unable to pick a fescue that is growing and positively identify it as x species or variety.

I’ve been reading about endophytes, and Kentucky 31 contains an endophyte that is toxic to grazing ruminants. (For those reading that are unfamiliar with endophytes, they are a fungus that grows inside fescue plant tissue in-between the plant cells, and has a symbiotic relationship with the fescue, and helps the plant fight pathogens and stay healthy for example). Exposure to this endophyte results in mild symptoms such as slow weight gain and the very extreme symptom of hooves falling off.

Since my neighbor grazed cows on these pastures that had healthy calves which grew, it leads me to think that the toxin exposure is minimal since the cows are eating other things too. I believe in working with what I have, and I also believe in making improvements if I can. Having said this, I’m considering sowing a novel endophyte fescue this fall. (for those reading that don’t know what this is, it is a fescue containing an endophyte that is non-toxic to grazing ruminants). I know that some plant breeders have come up with endophyte-free fescues, but I’ve read that they don’t survive long and often succumb to pathogens since they don’t have that symbiotic relationship with the fungus helping it stay healthy.

Maybe introducing a new fescue is not in my best interest, and perhaps I should can this idea and consider other grasses. I’m also interested in growing eastern gamagrass, but since I have no experience with this old prairie grass I am concerned with the height of gamagrass at 4-6ft tall when mature will shade out my clovers and vetch and other short growing grasses & fescues and possibly do more harm than good and not benefit the pastures as a whole.

Are there graziers on Permies that have experience with sowing pasture forages and can offer advice on introducing new grasses onto a farm, and specifically thoughts on novel endophyte fescues?
 
pollinator
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I would suggest not introducing a novel endophyte fescue. It would be outcompeted by the kentucky 31 and disappear within a few years. The kentucky 31 endophyte makes this the toughest grass for the conditions present.

The toxin in the endophyte infected fescue works by constricting blood vessels. To manage cattle ingesting this there are 2 good options. Red clover contains something that dilates blood vessels. If cattle are grazing a mix of fescue and red clover the effects of the endophyte are minimized. Some cattle will be naturally more resistant to the effects of the endophyte. Cull hard for animals that do poorly on this pasture.

Watch animals closely in cold weather. The constricted blood vessels will make them more vulnerable to frostbite.

Introducing eastern gamagrass would probably be a good idea. It is very difficult to shade out legumes with tall grasses, esp vetch tends to respond by growing taller and using vines to support itself.

I like to read a website called on pasture which is all about pasture management one of the authors has published a lot on how he grazes cattle on kentucky 31
 
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 I’m considering sowing a novel endophyte fescue this fall.



Based on my conversations with the local grass expert, Leora is correct. I have tried to introduce perennial rye and bluegrass to hopefully fill in the field, the fescue was really patchy. The big issue is that fescue is forgiving of overgrazing. So don't overgraze. Eventually the better grasses can come in. I am a big fan of the deep-rooting grasses, and per Greg Judy, if you graze right, they will move in. Fescue is no match for gamagrass or big bluestem. Let the field get really high before grazing.

I don't have the grazers yet, so I'm just trying to get something that will support a year of grazing when I get them.

From the USDA guide

Studies indicate that the presence of tall fescue and
the fescue endophyte diminish biological diversity on
the level of soil organisms, insects, plants, birds, and
mammals. Soil organisms, both beneficial and
detrimental to individual plants, exert a major
influence on the structure of plant communities.
Beneficial associations between mycorrhizal fungi
and plants occur in about 80% of all land plants;
these associations are critical in supplying specific
nutrients for many plants. Endophyte infected tall
fescue inhibits many soil organisms, including
pathogenic fungi, parasitic nematodes and beneficial
mycorrhizal fungi. The fescue endophyte produces
loline alkaloids that are toxic to at least twenty insect
species from ten families and five orders. The
endophyte also produces ergot alkaloids that are toxic
to mammals including domestic livestock.



Yuck!
 
James Freyr
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Tj Jefferson wrote:

 I’m considering sowing a novel endophyte fescue this fall.



Based on my conversations with the local grass expert, Leora is correct. I have tried to introduce perennial rye and bluegrass to hopefully fill in the field, the fescue was really patchy. The big issue is that fescue is forgiving of overgrazing. So don't overgraze. Eventually the better grasses can come in. I am a big fan of the deep-rooting grasses, and per Greg Judy, if you graze right, they will move in. Fescue is no match for gamagrass or big bluestem. Let the field get really high before grazing.

I don't have the grazers yet, so I'm just trying to get something that will support a year of grazing when I get them.



Hey Tj thanks for the thoughts, and I'm in a very similar situation as you. I don't have any grazing animals yet and I'm also trying to get my pastures in good shape before bringing them on. My neighbor who had cows on the land just let them have free reign over the place and did no rotation. He said he used to cut hay off of part of it too, and according to his father, the man who lived on what is now my farm used to grow cotton, but this is going back more than 50 years. My neighbor would spray for weeds to get the grass to grow. The land has, in my opinion, been abused, and I'm trying to remineralize the soil, and increase organic matter via twice annual mowing and leaving the biomass in place.

Maybe I have good grasses already there, and I just need to nurture them so they thrive. I'm not exactly sure on how to go about this besides doing what I know to improve the soil.


Leora- Thanks for your thoughts! I like the idea of the eastern gamagrass as it's my understanding that it's an old heritage grass and not any sort of "improved" hybrid coming out of a university agriculture research department. I'll go check out on pasture, and I hope to find some good information there on what I can do to graze with K31. I know I can't eradicate it, so I gotta farm with it. Ideally I hope to promote the growth of many other palatable forages and hopefully reduce the percentage overall of K31 on the pastures.
 
Tj Jefferson
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James, I am excited what you find. I looked at planting gamagrass, but it is pretty darn expensive and kind of tricky. Per Greg Judy (I have his rookie card framed on my desk), the best way of getting it is to have cows on the field. I'm hoping sheep will work. There's something about passing through a rumen and getting stomped in that does the trick. I'm just starting with cheap seeds and going from there. Of course in your climate they probably needed to be seeded in fall for best results. But I'm seeding blue and rye as I move the chickens and it's doing OK. The bluegrass gets amazing deep roots after a few years.
 
James Freyr
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Tj Jefferson wrote:

From the USDA guide

Studies indicate that the presence of tall fescue and
the fescue endophyte diminish biological diversity on
the level of soil organisms, insects, plants, birds, and
mammals. Soil organisms, both beneficial and
detrimental to individual plants, exert a major
influence on the structure of plant communities.
Beneficial associations between mycorrhizal fungi
and plants occur in about 80% of all land plants;
these associations are critical in supplying specific
nutrients for many plants. Endophyte infected tall
fescue inhibits many soil organisms, including
pathogenic fungi, parasitic nematodes and beneficial
mycorrhizal fungi. The fescue endophyte produces
loline alkaloids that are toxic to at least twenty insect
species from ten families and five orders. The
endophyte also produces ergot alkaloids that are toxic
to mammals including domestic livestock.



Yuck!



Dang!! That is exactly what I'm trying not to do with my soil. I'm putting a lot of time and some money into nurturing my soil biota. Thanks for posting that USDA info. I think introducing another fescue is out of the question.

I don't know a whole lot about grasses. I need to go do some reading on other grasses, like orchard, meadow, and timothy grasses as something to consider. They may already be there on my farm, and I just don't know how to identify them.

What kind of blue grass are you planting?
 
Tj Jefferson
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Location: Virginia USDA 7a/b
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I don't know a whole lot about grasses. I need to go do some reading on other grasses, like orchard, meadow, and timothy grasses as something to consider. They may already be there on my farm, and I just don't know how to identify them.

What kind of blue grass are you planting?



Orchard is not a good forage grass around here. Exclusively for hay, because grazers tend to pull it out. I don't know anything about timothy but I think is is also predominantly for hay. Meadowgrass is bluegrass isn't it?

The way I think about it, I want the most grass for the longest time. I don't want to use hay, standing forage only (with a stocking area not grazed at all for the entire summer). My climate is probably similar, generally a good C3 growing season of 2-3 months with a 4 month C4 growing season. 2-3 months of not much growth in winter. So a mixture of C4 and C3 grasses is ideal. Warmer areas can get by with only C4 forage, like where we were in Florida, all bermuda. Parasites love rhyzome grasses, so I am trying to get more bunch grasses going. Those are mostly C4 grasses, and Greg Judy (who is the source of grazing awesomeness) says they will just appear. Price bluestem and gamagrass and you will see why I really hope he is right.

I plant the absolute cheapest bluegrass I can get. That way it is likely not designed for lawns or golf courses, and is likely genetically diverse. I scientifically choose by calling seed places around here and asking the manager if they have out of date seed they will sell me at a pittance. I have gotten 400# of seed this way for the current buildout. All very scientifically done.

Forgot to mention, I also put down annual C4 grass to shade during the first summer. Using sorghum sudan this year. Real cheap.
 
Tj Jefferson
pollinator
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Sunn HempOoh! Just scored some cheap Sunn Hemp. Scratch the sudangrass. Nice!!!

1000# of biomass an acre and nitrogen fixer. I applied it at 10# an acre and it got big. One time deal for new pastures with a late start.
 
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Location: Henry County Ky Zone 6
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I have a lot of Infected fescue and my sheep won’t touch it in the spring and summer. After a couple of frosts and the endophyte is reduced they like it pretty well. It is nice for them to have the green(ish) stockpile in the late fall and winter. I would not choose to plant it but it does that good quality.
I have planted Gamma grass with limited success(northern KY). It is slow to establish. Really took about 3 years for the clumps to get robust. The sheep love it but you have to baby it and graze it high summer and maybe fall when it starts to die back. I think it works best to keep the native warm season grasses in a separate area and just graze them in the summer and late fall and stay off them otherwise.
Congratulations on getting land and good luck.
 
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