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Grazing fescue this winter? Be careful

Thinking about stockpiling fescue pasture to meet some or all of your winter grazing needs? If so, make sure you're not standing in the way of better gains from fescue toxicosis.

Fescue toxicosis can have a big cost to beef cattle producers. In Missouri, for example, it can cost the beef industry up to $160 million per year, according to University of Missouri Extension forage crops specialist Craig Roberts. But, you can take a few steps ahead of fall and winter to help minimize -- but not eliminate altogether, unfortunately -- fescue toxicosis and its effects on your herd.

A few steps to take year-round to minimize potential fescue toxicosis, according to Roberts, include:

  • Reducing spring nitrogen fertilization rates;  
  • Providing more diverse stands with legumes and other grasses;
  • Rotating cattle to non-fescue based summer pastures;
  • Haying or clipping fescue during the late spring and early summer to reduce stems and seed heads;
  • Supplementing feeds like soybean or corn co-products.  

But, some factors contributing to fescue toxicosis are unavoidable. Iowa State university Extension beef program specialist Joe Sellers says this past winter saw spikes of fescue toxicosis in areas where the grazing land was "rested" longer, followed by periods of grazing during colder-than-normal weather.

“Many years of research in Iowa and Missouri on stockpiling resulted in recommending stockpiling periods of 70 to 100 days. Much longer rest periods will increase plant volume, but also will reduce forage quality and increase the alkaloid levels in the grass,” Sellers says. “If pastures are rested longer than 100 days, producers must be careful when those plots are grazed, graze mature bred cows in mid-pregnancy and dilute the fescue with other feeds. Late summer applications of moderate nitrogen rates can result in more grass growth and extended winter grazing, with less impact on alkaloids.”

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