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The Grass That Inspires Love and Hate

By Don Comis
July 25, 2000

Whether you play golf or just admire your lawn from a lawn chair--particularly on a hot day-- you should stop for a moment to thank a toxic fungus called Neotyphodium coenophialum.

This fungus is the reason your tall fescue turf or lawn stays green during short dry spells and survives the rigors of daily life, including golfing.

It’s also the reason that farmers--and horse owners--have a love-hate relationship with tall fescue. The same toxins that deter insects and other pests from munching on your greens can do the same for the animals meant to graze on fescue pastures. U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists, working with university scientists, discovered this in 1977.

Since then, Agricultural Research Service scientists, such as animal scientist John A. Stuedemann in Georgia and agronomist David P. Belesky in West Virginia, along with university and other ARS colleagues, have worked on retaining the positive aspects of the fungus-fescue relationship, while minimizing the negatives. Their work has borne many fruits. The most recent of these are a vaccine, new fescue varieties in the mill with less toxic forms of the fungus, and a discovery that the fungus “orders” fescue roots to grow better and release soil-improving compounds.

On a hot day, these fescue toxins can cause cattle to lose their ability to regulate body temperature, which forces them to spend their days standing in a pond or shade rather than eating. The toxins also endanger many of the approximately 700,000 horses that graze on tall fescue pastures in the United States, costing the horse industry big bucks that could dwarf the beef industry’s losses of up to $1 billion a year.

More details on these promising developments can be found in a cover story and accompanying editorial in the July issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the chief scientific agency in USDA.

Scientific contact: John A. Stuedemann, J. Phil Campbell, Sr., ARS Natural Resource Conservation Center, Watkinsville, Ga., phone (706) 769-5631, fax (706) 769-8962.