Spring is a great time to take on home improvement projects on the farm. To safeguard animals and profitability, cattle producers should tackle these fescue pastures.
Nearly 98% of Missouri’s pastures are tall fescue infected with an endophyte that can cause fescue toxicosis in grazing cattle, resulting in reduced reproductive rates, milk production, gain and weaning weight. It can also cause health issues, including lameness and heat stress.
However, replacing toxic fescue with other forages eliminates animal exposure to the harmful endophyte.
University of Missouri Extension agricultural economist Joe Horner and MU Extension agronomist Craig Roberts answer seven common questions farmers ask when embarking on pasture renovation:
1. When should producers consider renovating pastures? Infection levels should be below 10% – preferably zero – for dairy cattle and expensive horses. For beef cattle and small ruminants, endophyte levels should be less than 25%.
Pastures with at least 60% endophyte infection are highly toxic and should be replaced, Roberts says.
2. How to know the level of infection of a pasture? Farmers must collect fescue samples and send them to a laboratory for analysis. Laboratories use a microscopic test or chemical procedures to determine the level of infection.
Roberts encourages growers to choose a lab with experienced technicians and a proven track record of accurate results. MU researchers and extension specialists send their samples to Agrinostics, a lab in Georgia that performs the chemical test. Find Agrinostics sampling methods on agronostics.com.
3. What forages are best to replace infected fescue in pastures? After removing toxic fescue, growers often plant “new” varieties of fescue that are not toxic to livestock but tend to grow and persist as well as tall fescue infected with harmful endophytes. Other options include warm-season native grasses or cool-season perennial grasses, such as perennial ryegrass, orchardgrass or bromegrass.
4. How is the renovation process going? To renovate a pasture, spray, smother, then spray again.
Apply herbicide in late spring or early summer, or you can wait until fall.
Plant a smother crop like southern grass or pearl millet in summer or winter. Once the smothered crop is ripe, you can cut it into hay or graze it. Horner says growers can skip the smother crop if they apply the herbicide twice and observe a waiting period between the two applications. However, planting a summer smother crop usually results in a faster return on investment.
Apply another cycle of herbicide before seeding a replacement forage.
The spray-chomp-spray process takes a year. Animals may be returned to lightly graze the renovated pasture in the spring following the renovation year.
“It’s not a simple and easy process, but real opportunities exist,” says Horner. “If producers are willing to put in the time and make major changes, it’s a good long-term investment.”
5. How much does pasture renovation cost? When renovating pastures, major input costs include management commitment, chemicals, seeds and fertilizers, says Horner. In addition, the inactivity of pastures during the renovation period has its costs.
Horner and his team at MU Extension estimate net renovation costs per acre at $354 if you use a summer smother crop, $497 if you use a winter smother crop, and $357 if you don’t. use no choke culture. These estimates include preparing pasture, planting new fescue, and setting land fallow during the renovation process.
6. What are the advantages? Animals grazing on a renovated pasture generally experience improved reproductive rates and weaning weights. Additionally, grazing a renovated pasture can reduce costs, including vet fees. Horner says producers can expect annual returns of $198 per cow. Depending on the loading rate, producers could also capture a return on investment of 5 to 18% per year.
7. How long will a renovated pasture remain free of harmful endophytes? If producers properly maintain a renovated pasture, they can expect pastures to be free of harmful endophytes for about 20 years, Horner says. However, some renovated pastures lasted longer.
More information on grassland renewal is available from the Grassland Renewal Alliance at grasslandrenewal.org.
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