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Fescue toxicosis- a looming threat to southern ranching
Kentucky Ag Connection - 03/28/2024

Kentucky-31 fescue, a seemingly perfect solution for winter pastures in the southern US, has become a major problem. This tall fescue grass, dominant across 37 million acres from Missouri to the Carolinas, is toxic to cattle due to a fungus living within it. This fescue toxicosis costs the livestock industry up to $2 billion annually.

Developed in Kentucky in the 1930s, Kentucky-31 fescue offered a solution to overgrazed and barren lands. Unlike native grasses, it stayed green year-round, boosting the southern cattle industry. However, by the 1950s, ranchers noticed its troubling effects – cattle avoided it and showed weight loss and reduced milk production.

The culprit is an endophyte, a fungus living symbiotically inside the fescue. This endophyte provides the grass with resilience against harsh conditions but also produces toxins harmful to cattle. While scientists created a non-toxic version in 1982, it lacked the winter hardiness and wasn't adopted by ranchers.

Today, fescue toxicosis remains a significant issue. With climate change warming temperatures, the fescue belt is expanding north, impacting new farming regions. This has led to a renewed focus on solutions.

One approach involves planting "friendly fescue." This modified version contains a harmless endophyte, keeping the grass winter-green and mitigating toxicity. However, its higher cost and the labor-intensive process of replacing existing pastures have limited its adoption by ranchers accustomed to Kentucky-31 fescue.

The other solution advocates for complete fescue eradication and restoration of native grasses and wildflowers. This approach not only addresses the toxicity issue but also benefits the environment by revitalizing natural carbon sinks. However, this method requires a significant shift in land management practices, making it a hard sell for many ranchers.

The fescue belt's situation exemplifies the challenges faced by agriculture in a changing climate. As weather patterns shift, ranchers must adapt their practices. The debate between "friendly fescue" and native grass restoration reflects the difficult choices – maintaining economic viability while considering long-term consequences for the land and climate.

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