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New Tall Fescue Could Fill Fall-to-Spring Grazing Gap

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In baseball, a good outfielder can "cover the gap." A new tall fescue that could do the same may be headed your way. The Forage Improvement Division's grass breeding program has developed a tall fescue line, currently coded NFPDF 144 or AGRFA 144, that has shown promise in trials in the south-central United States, including Oklahoma and Texas. The Noble Research Institute anticipates that this grass variety, or cultivar, will be released in 2008.

The aim in the grass breeding program has been to develop cool-season perennial grasses that could be used to cover the fall-to-spring grazing gap, thus reducing the need to use cool-season annuals or feed hay during that time. Unfortunately, cool-season perennials don't persist well in Oklahoma and Texas, due to drought and heat stress that typically happen during our summers. Beginning in 1997, we tested hundreds of strains of tall fescue under heavy cattle grazing pressure. One of these strains, labeled NFPDF, was consistently among the most persistent tall fescues tested.

Almost all the tall fescue in the United States contains a fungus, called an endophyte, which helps make the plant more persistent. This same endophyte also causes health and performance problems in grazing animals, often reducing average daily gains by half. Tall fescue seed containing novel endophytes, which are naturally occurring strains of endophyte that help the plant persist but do not cause health problems for grazing animals, was introduced to the market earlier this decade. Jesup MaxQ® is an example of a novel endophyte tall fescue.

In collaboration with colleagues at AgResearch in New Zealand, a novel endophyte was put into the NFPDF tall fescue line. In small plot tests from Georgia to Oregon, persistence, seed yield and forage yield of NFPDF 144 has been comparable to, or in some cases better than, Jesup MaxQ. Lamb weight gains have averaged twice as much as KY-31 E+ (Table 1), which contains a toxic endophyte, and steers grazing NFPDF 144 gained more than 2.8 pounds per day in a grazing trial in Ardmore last spring. We continue to test NFPDF 144 to find out where it fits best. According to the Oklahoma Mesonet, we can expect a drought such as we had in Ardmore from October 2005 through September 2006 to occur about once every 40 years. On a soil with good moisture holding capacity and grazing deferment beginning in late spring, NFPDF 144 was able to recover from this drought and allow for future grazing to occur (Figure 1). At other locations near Ardmore this past year, we lost stands of NFPDF 144, so without irrigation, I-35 is probably a little beyond its western limit for many sites. If NFPDF 144 is released and named in 2008, as we anticipate, seed will begin to be widely available around 2009 and 2010. So, keep an eye out for the tall fescue rookie that might help you "cover the gap."