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ARS Home » Midwest Area » Lexington, Kentucky » Forage-animal Production Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #335026

Research Project: Optimizing the Biology of the Animal-Plant Interface for Improved Sustainability of Forage-Based Animal Enterprises

Location: Forage-animal Production Research

Title: From the Lab Bench: The fescue belt is cow-calf country

Author
item Aiken, Glen

Submitted to: Cow Country News
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: 10/12/2016
Publication Date: 11/1/2016
Citation: Aiken, G.E. 2016. From the Lab Bench: The fescue belt is cow-calf country. Cow Country News. Pg. 64.

Interpretive Summary: Cattle operations in the Fescue Belt, which overlays what is commonly called the transition zone between the subtropical southeast and the temperate northeast, are primarily cow-calf. Soils in the Fescue Belt are marginal for crop production, making them more suitable for forage production. Tall fescue is well adapted to the region, and its persistence and productivity has made it extremely competitive with other grasses. This competitiveness is associated with a fungal endophyte that infects most plants of tall fescue and produces alkaloids, which impart the plant with tolerances to environmental stresses, but also produces ergot alkaloids that are toxic to grazing livestock. Tall fescue has been acceptable for cow-calf production, but poor post-weaning growth performance and thriftiness of calves has made the grass unsuitable for backgrounding steers and heifers. A survey of extension specialists and researchers in the fescue belt estimated that, of the 11.7 million beef cows in the Fescue Belt in 2012, approximately 65.6 percent or 7.7 million were exposed to toxic endophyte-infected tall fescue at some point in their lives, which indicates that approximately 25% of the U.S. beef herd is exposed to tall fescue. This is information is of interest to the U.S. Beef Industry.

Technical Abstract: A column was written to discuss the importance of cow-calf production to the fescue belt, which overlays what is commonly called the transition zone between the subtropical southeast and the temperate northeast (see figure). Undeniably, the “Fescue Belt” is cow-calf country. The Fescue Belt is good for cow-calf production for two good reasons. First, land in the region, outside of the Mississippi Delta, has soils that are marginal for crop production. Most acreage in the Belt are suitable for forage production. Secondly, tall fescue is well adapted to the region, and its persistence and productivity has made it extremely competitive with other grasses. This competitiveness is associated with an endophyte that infects most plants of tall fescue and produces alkaloids, which impart the plant with tolerances to environmental stresses, but also produces ergot alkaloids that are toxic to grazing livestock. A survey of extension specialists and researchers in the fescue belt estimated that, of the 11.7 million beef cows in the Fescue Belt in 2012, approximately 65.6 percent or 7.7 million were exposed to toxic endophyte-infected tall fescue at some point in their lives. Using the cattle consensus conducted by the USDA-National Agriculture Statistics, this number comprised nearly 26 percent of the total U.S. beef cow population. We estimated that the Fescue Belt encompasses approximately 10 percent of the U.S. land mass, including Alaska and Hawaii. The Fescue Belt is a major region in the country for cow-calf production, with a fourth of the U.S. cow herd being exposed to ergot alkaloids.