Fescue toxicity dominates discussion at VFGC event

AFP Correspondent

WYTHEVILLE, Va. (Feb. 16, 2016) — Members of the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council took their most in-depth look at fescue in a series of four meetings across Virginia.
The meetings here, in Blackstone, Weyers Cave and Brandy Station drew some of the largest crowds in the organization’s history of winter conferences.
The spotlight was on Kentucky 31, the grass that held the nation’s soil and filled its gullies while spreading across 40 million acres and energizing the cattle industry has its dark side, fescue toxicosis, which causes $2.5 billion in loses annually.
The morning sessions of the series looked at the issues and problems of fescue and the afternoon sessions looked at potential solutions to those. Extension personnel, university and seed company scientists and farmers shared some of their work with the VFGC members during the meetings.
The council also looked ahead to 2017 with VFGC President Jon Repair announcing the 2017 American Forage and Grassland Council will meet in Roanoke next January. 
Because of this, the council will not hold its annual winter conferences across the state but is working to see that Virginians attend the national conference in Roanoke.
This year’s conferences opened with two Extension agents working in the Shenandoah Valley, Matt Booher and John Benner, sharing their research and findings.
“As Extension agents, we hear a lot about fescue toxicosis from the academic side, but rarely does it make its way into the real world conversations we hear in the field,” the pair wrote in remarks prepared for opening the meetings.
“While livestock producers in our area are aware of fescue toxicity, most treat it with indifference,” they continued. “It is easy to understand where they are coming from; visible or measurable losses from fescue occur sporadically, and most of the time, livestock seem to tough it out pretty well. Several years ago, we began to question whether fescue toxicity should even be a concern in our area, especially after a search for existing research yielded data that was vague and 30 years old.”
They did some research and found pastures in the Shenandoah Valley are infected with the endophyte that causes fescue toxicosis and looked at the alkaloids the endophyte produces.
“The results of our testing were pretty clear: Fescue in the Shenandoah Valley has the potential to be very toxic regardless of the date or stages of growth,” they said.
The agents said the aim of their study was to raise the awareness that fescue toxicity is real, measurable and could be affecting farmers’ operations.
Other speakers outlined the science that has found how the alkaloids work in cattle to cause the health problems that the animals experience. They have found that the alkaloids reduce blood flow “enough to drastically reduce the animal’s ability to regulate body heat, making them vulnerable to heat stress in warm air temperatures and susceptible to fescue foot in cold temperatures,” Glen Aiken, USDA-Agriculture Research Service animal scientist, told the group.  
Joe Bouton of Bouton Consulting outlined the opportunities that novel endophyte tall fescue offers. Bouton, a professor emeritus in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at the University of Georgia, suggested replacing infected pastures with endophyte free fescue, also called novel fescue.
Discussion throughout the meetings showed this approach is not as simple as it sounds for a variety of reasons including cost and work.
He pointed to the need to test pasture for existing levels of alkaloid levels and determining what solutions to use. These options include mitigation strategies, temporary steps to take prior to replacement of pastures.
“Farmers require a significant change in their thinking and motivation if they are to replace toxic acreage with novel endophyte tall fescue,” Bouton said.  “Novel endophytes are the opportunity; producer mindset is the challenge.”