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How can I get my cows out of the shade and grazing fescue pasture?

Yay, spring is here! For me, spring is best time of year, because I love to see the grass, trees and flowers come to life. I think, for the most part, livestock probably like this time of year as well, as the temperatures are more moderate and better-quality forages become available.

One challenge that arises perennially on KY-31 fescue pastures, however, is the rise in the chemical compounds known as ergot alkaloids, which are produced by an endophyte (endo = inside; phyte = fungus) in the grass. As the grass starts growing more rapidly, so do the alkaloids, as is illustrated in the graph below, which includes data compiled from a five-year study completed at the University of Kentucky.

These compounds are very protective of the plant, helping to reduce insect damage, decrease grazing pressure from livestock (which decreases palatability) and improve drought tolerance. As a livestock producer, however, I know that decreasing the intake of the least expensive, homegrown part of the diet is not a desirable consequence, as that can negatively impact weight gain and body condition. When we look at the milk production of the mama cow trying to produce a calf worthy of its genetics, reduced forage intake and, therefore, milk production will affect both the cow and the calf. Combine that with our understanding that alkaloids lower hormones like prolactin, which is essential in the onset of milk production, and we have a recipe for significant production challenges.

An additional challenge that manifests with the ingestion of high levels of these ergot alkaloids is increased body temperature, which results in heat stress, due to the constriction of the blood vessels that carry excess heat to the outer parts of the body. As cows overheat, they congregate in ponds or in shady areas, and forage intake is reduced. Again, the reduced intake of grass also reduces milk production and affects weight gain in stocker calves. Conception rates can also be reduced due to excessive body temperature and any loss of body condition at this time, as cows put a large amount of energy into making milk.

So, can we improve grazing management if we are able to reduce the compound effects of fescue toxicity?

CRYSTALYX® products have long been proven in research to help producers with grazing management, primarily through the strategic placement of blocks in a pasture, recognizing that cattle will stay within a certain perimeter near the supplements. With fescue toxicity, the “bunching up” of cattle under shade or in ponds due to heat stress exacerbates the challenge of getting good grazing coverage of a pasture. As a result, the challenge is to try to reduce these negative effects from the ergot alkaloids in fescue and to return cattle to normal grazing behavior.

In a 2003 study by Akay, et. al., steers were fed endophyte-infected fescue seed, with half of the group used as a control while the other half was given the same diet but supplemented with a natural hydrolyzed yeast, now known as FEB-200™ from Alltech. One of the measurements taken was rectal temperature, and steers in the FEB-200 group were significantly cooler than those in the control group — similar, in fact, to another group on an endophyte-free diet. Another measurement taken showed that a higher percentage of ergot alkaloids were excreted by steers in the FEB-200 group. 

Since that time, FEB-200 has been incorporated into a number of CRYSTALYX products along with a superior nutritional package, as a strategy for promoting maximum nutrient absorption and animal performance of cattle on toxic fescue pastures.” Does this strategy work? Here is a testimonial from a cattle producer in Virginia who tried it: 

“Two things stood out when I started feeding FEB-200 to my cattle on fescue: the rough hair coats immediately went away, and cattle stopped spending so much time in the shade and water and spent more time grazing.”

The focus with CRYSTALYX is to provide a completely balanced supplement that will promote the overall health of the cattle. Research has indicated lower copper in KY-31 tall fescue, so these fescue-targeted supplements supply additional copper to overcome this deficiency. The complete trace mineral package is designed to reduce fescue toxicity-induced stress, allowing for a healthier animal overall that forages better, digests what is consumed better, and then grows or reproduces at a higher rate than cattle on a lesser nutritional program. Especially pertinent to this approach is the Blueprint® fescue line of products, in which 100% of the trace minerals are provided in the organic or chelated form as Alltech’s Bioplex® trace minerals. Previous blogs have indicated the production advantages of Blueprint, and testimonials continue to roll in about the associated improvements in reproduction for breeding cows and bulls, plus the better growth of youngstock.

All of the products in the fescue Blueprint line contains FEB-200, and included in the line are Blueprint® Fescue Mag (20% protein, high-mag) and Blueprint® Fescue-Phos® mineral block with ClariFly® for fly control. The latter combination, of FEB-200 and ClariFly, is the perfect strategy for keeping cattle from congregating and for encouraging the kind of grazing behavior we want to see. CRYSTALYX® Fescue-lyx® and Fescue-Phos® are the original FEB-200 products and, again, are fortified to meet the nutritional requirements of cattle on fescue pasture.

If you are a cattle producer living in the fescue belt in the United States, we encourage you to visit your local CRYSTALYX dealer to learn more about our products and strategies for reducing fescue toxicity in your herd this summer.