Grazing fescue pastures: Getting your cattle out of the shade

May 25, 2021

The issue of fescue toxicity in cattle and other species has been a problem for a long time, and we’re still working on solutions to offset the decreased production responses we see. Sam Strahan discusses what can be done to help cattle overcome some of the negative effects of grazing fescue pastures.


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Tom:      I’m Tom Martin, and we’re talking today with Sam Strahan, with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements, about cattle grazing fescue pastures and the problems associated with that.

                Welcome back, Sam.

Sam:      Thanks, Tom. It’s great to be here.

Tom:      And Sam, you’ve talked with us before about problems with cattle and fescue, so can you give us a quick refresher on why that is a problem?

Sam:      Sure. Be glad to do that.

                First of all, this issue of fescue toxicity in cattle and other species has been a problem for a long time, and we’re still working on solutions to offset the decreased production responses we see.

                Now, Kentucky 31 fescue is a main cultivar that we’re concerned about, but it happens to be hardier in terms of the ability to withstand drought. It has excellent resistance to insects, competes well with other grasses and can grow in locations other grasses cannot. So, that’s why it’s so prevalent in many areas.

                However, on the negative side, where livestock production (is) concerned, there’s an organism inside the plant known as an endophyte, and it produces chemical toxins that interfere with such things as milk production (and) growth rates of young calves. We see it affecting the conception rates of the breeding animals.

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

                It also leaves these compounds (that) constrict the blood vessels, which help remove heat from the body, so the body temperature tends to increase, and it also affects the digestion of feeds. So, they do a lot of things to impact how well our cattle perform.

                Now, it’s been estimated (that) these losses to the cattle industry are in the $3-billion-a-year range, and maybe another billion dollars in losses to the horse, sheep and goat industries.

Tom:      Well, that doesn’t sound like a very good scenario. Is this a problem all year round?

Sam:      Yeah. The chemical toxins I referred to are known as ergot alkaloids, and these change during the course of the growing season. They pretty well follow the growth pattern of the fescue grass itself, so (they) tend to rise in the spring, when the grass starts its early growth spurt. Then, they’ll decrease slightly during the hot summer months but tend to rise again when cooler temperatures and more rainfall occurs in the fall. Now, during the winter, the toxins and the grass are not as bad, but on the majority of farms, they’re feeding hay at that time of the year.

                So, just last week, I saw a paper that a co-worker shared where the researchers measured these alkaloid levels in hay over in 18-month period. The good news they shared is that the alkaloid levels dropped significantly in the first few days after baling, whether it was dry hay or a high-moisture hay, and it continued to slowly decline over that period.

                The bad news that came out of the article is that producers should be advised, they said, that the alkaloid levels were still quite a bit above what is considered toxic levels for livestock, even after 18 months. So, while hay has much reduced levels of toxins, these still are, generally, high enough to have negative effects on our livestock.

Tom:      So, of the problems that you just outlined, which is the most damaging to the cattle industry?

Sam:      Well, that’s a challenging question, because these toxins are impacting pretty much all stages of production, from the mama cow to a growing calf. And we see it affecting the replacement heifers and breeding bulls as well.

                However, we tend to consider — the mama cow is probably the most critical part of the cow-calf system, because we rely totally on her having a calf over a year, and the more calves we have, the more pounds of beef there are to sell.

                Also, we’re asking her to produce milk for her growing calf, and we want her to breed back within the first 82 days after calving to maintain a 12-month calving cycle.

                Well, the impact of these toxins on reducing certain hormones, like prolactin, that affect milk production (and) reducing intake of forage, which supports milk production and gaining back body condition after calving — it becomes quite a challenge for affected females to always make our lactic goals without some management intervention.

                Now, since about 25% of cattle in the U.S. live in what we described as a fescue belt, there’s quite a few animals being impacted by this.

Tom:      What types of management intervention are available?

Sam:      Well, over the years, standard recommendations have included diluting the fescue that carries the toxins with other forages or feeds. Another approach that works — but it’s quite costly — is totally replacing that field of grass with either an endophyte-free seed or other type of grass for foraging.

                Now, a more recent innovation came from our parent company, Alltech, who developed a yeast-based additive in the early 2000s called FEB-200™, which has shown good promise in helping cattle overcome some of the negative effects I mentioned earlier, like poor reproduction, lower growth rates in calves, lower milk production of the cows and rough hair coats and such things as that.

                Now — and the way it works inside the animal’s body, we expect to see reduced levels of toxins that caused these negative effects. While we read about these improvements from research reports that have been done, testimonials coming from actual producers is a proof, telling us it performs at the farm level.

                Some of the feedback we get is that cattle will shed off quicker in the spring so they don’t carry that heavy winter coat to add to the heat stress when temperatures warm up. And they see cattle grazing longer during the day instead of standing in the shade or in ponds, trying to stay cool. And cows show fewer signs of heat stress, like heavy panting with (their) tongues hanging out.

                Now, also, if we talk to those who keep good records, they can tell us (that) their cow herds end up with more calves. So, as I mentioned earlier, getting more calves on the ground is goal number one for them, since that is what drives profitability for the cow-calf producer.

                We know that heat stress and the presence of these toxic compounds can contribute to early embryonic deaths, so anything that reduces these conditions should result in higher conception rates.

Tom:      Are there other advantages to using a program with FEB-200?

Sam:      I think there are. I look at this as helping the farm manager improve grazing management — meaning, if he or she can get cattle to spend more time turning grass into meat and not turning part of the pasture into a mud hole because they’re trying to stay cool under a shade tree, then that’s what I would call a positive. Good blocker mineral management with our supplements containing FEB-200 can help achieve this improved grazing management.

Now, another advantage should be fewer problems with flies that, again, are a large nuisance when cows are bunched up in a small area. Flies tend to spread such things as pink eye between animals. They can spread mastitis, and the biting flies certainly increase stress on the animals.

If we can get cattle spread out in pasture, some of these issues can be reduced. So, we do like to see good fly control management in conjunction with the FEB-200 supplementation.

Tom:      Well, these do sound like some compelling reasons to include FEB-200 for reducing problems with fescue toxicity. Where can cattle producers find these products?

Sam:      Well, our, again, our parent company sells FEB-200. That’s Alltech, (who) sells FEB-200 as add packs to feed mills for inclusion in feeds and minerals.

                Now, Ridley Block — we have a number of minerals in CRYSTALYX® blocks with FEB-200 to choose from. The first CRYSTALYX blocks that had it added were Fescue-lyx®, Hi-Mag Fescue-lyx® and Fescue-Phos®. These were products that were already in our portfolio. So, FEB-200 was added without changing the name.

                In the past couple of years, with (the) expansion of the Blueprint® line of products, which contain 100% organic trace minerals, we now have the Blueprint® Fescue Mag FEB-200™ and Blueprint® Fescue-Phos® FEB-200™ which can come with or without ClariFly® for fly control.

                Now, one of the things I like to stress with these CRYSTALYX products for fescue is that is a complete package of nutrition included that will help reduce these toxicity effects. FEB-200 will help with reducing the toxin load in the body. So, this, we consider a preventative action against the problem, rather than using a Band-Aid approach of alleviating toxicity symptoms after they already are affecting the cattle, like some other products do.

                The complete nutritional package, then, provides the necessary supplemental minerals and vitamins missing in fescue — such things as copper, zinc and selenium being good examples — so that cattle will produce up to their potential, whether you’re talking about a group of stocker cattle, where weight gain is the important measure; a cow-calf herd, where getting cows bred is the top goal; or we see a purebred herd, where cows might be flushed for high-quality embryos in their breeding cows developed to pass on those superior genetics.

                So, my recommendation to cattlemen living in the fescue belt in the U.S. is that (they should) check out for additional information on fescue toxicity, or they can certainly visit a CRSYTALYX dealer and ask them about the products and strategies to reduce this problem.

Tom:      All right. Sam Strahan with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements. Sam, thanks for your time today.

Sam:      Thanks, Tom. It was great visiting with you.

Tom:      You bet.

                I’m Tom Martin. Thanks for listening.