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Tall Fescue is Usually a Preferred Forage

Posted Mar. 1, 1999

Since the beginning of the year, I have had several calls about Tall fescue. Some were asking about varieties to plant, the best time to plant or fertilize, etc. But I had one caller from eastern Oklahoma ask why we (forage specialists) do not like Tall fescue. He has had Tall fescue pastures for many years and found fescue to be one of his best forages for his cow herd. He related that Tall fescue was easy to manage, it responded well to fertilizer, and the cattle liked it and did well on it during the fall, winter, and spring. He went on to say that his Tall fescue even had a longer growing season than his bermudagrass.

In his mind fescue did not deserve the negative publicity it received. But most everything he had read or heard about Tall fescue focused on the problems and negatives concerning this grass, none of which he had encountered personally. After further discussion, it was obvious that this producer managed his pastures, particularly his Tall fescue, in a manner that would be prescribed by the forage specialists here at the Noble Research Institute (NF). I have reflected on this conversation many times, thinking how true his comments were. Perhaps it is time to take an objective look at Tall fescue.

Tall fescue is a cool-season, perennial forage found in much of the eastern portions of Oklahoma and Texas. Fescue can also be found in the western portion of our service area, but it is usually limited to wetter soils. Tall fescue originated in Europe. It is a long-lived bunchgrass best adapted to clay or loam soils. Tall fescue is tolerant to poorly drained soils and acidic soils. It is relatively drought tolerant, works well as both grazing and hay pasture, and is also used for erosion control on wet soils.

Tall fescue responds well to fertilization. Its growing season runs from September through June, although it can have a winter dormancy period. There are both endophyte-infected and endophyte-free varieties commercially available. Many of the problems associated with Tall fescue such as fescue foot or fescue toxicity are due to the presence of a fungal endophyte (endophyte-infected) that has a symbiotic relationship with the plant.

As a cool season plant, Tall fescue will maintain forage quality values during the dormant season above those values of dormant warm season plants. If managed properly, Tall fescue can be an important component to a pasture system. If fertilized in the fall, Tall fescue yield potential and forage quality will increase.

By applying 60 units of nitrogen in early September, one can expect approximately 2,000 pounds of dry matter production before winter sets in. If fertilized and stockpiled for winter grazing, Tall fescue can be used by limit-grazing or full grazing to meet the daily crude protein requirements for all classes of cattle, and will meet the energy requirements for most classes of mature cattle. Spring fertilization will increase production as desired, especially when using Tall fescue as a hay crop.

Most of the Tall fescue that occurs in Oklahoma and Texas is endophyteinfected unless planted as an endophyte-free variety. Here at NF, we rarely recommend renovating an existing pasture, and our observations indicate that the endophyte-free varieties are more susceptible to drought and over-grazing. The basic approach to dealing with Tall fescue that we recommend to producers is to learn to manage the grass properly. Some of the suggestions we make to minimize the negative effects of the endophyte are as follows.

  1. Fall should be the primary season for fertilizer applications. Spring fertilizer applications should be used in establishment years, and when the forage is needed for grazing or hay. Avoid excess nitrogen. Fifty to sixty units of nitrogen per application is optimal.
  2. Interseed with legumes if soil pH is adequate (above 6.5). White clovers persist well with Tall fescue. Alfalfa can be another alternative but it does not persist as well as white clover.
  3. Remove cattle from endophyteinfected Tall fescue pastures during hot weather when bermudagrass and other warm season forages are available. The endophyte reaches its highest levels within the plants during the months of June, July, and August.
  4. Avoid grazing Tall fescue too short. Maintain a minimal graze height of about three inches. More forage is produced, regrowth is greater, and plant vigor is increased when Tall fescue is not grazed below three inches. This is especially important if managing an endophyte-free variety.
  5. Bale fescue at the boot stage, before seedheads appear. Quality will be greater and this timing is before endophyte levels peak.
  6. Avoid feeding endophyte-infected hay to cattle grazing endophyteinfected pastures when possible. It is desirable to have several sources of hay types available when grazing endophyte-infected Tall fescue pastures.

Tall fescue has many more desirable attributes than undesirable. It can be a management problem in some parts of the country where it is the predominant forage. In most of the NF service area Tall fescue is a preferred forage. If well managed, it becomes a valuable component of the forage system.

If you are considering adding fescue to your forage system, some varieties to be considered are Dovey, Martin, Mozark, Stargrazer, Triumph, and KY-31 (both endophyte-free and endophyte infected). Planting rate is 15 pounds pure live seed per acre on prepared seedbeds or 20 pounds-plus in an overseeding situation. Best results are usually achieved from an early fall planting. For more information, contact the Agricultural Division or your local extension service.