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Fescue toxicosis

Tall fescue is a common forage crop with a serious downside. It's infected with a fungal endophyte that's toxic to animals, and causes many problems.
Photo courtesy of the University of Missouri

Radio interview source: Craig Roberts, State Forage Specialist, University of Missouri

 
Many livestock producers have tall fescue in their pastures because it's resistant to insects, tolerates poor soil, and has a long growing season. Unfortunately, it can also make the animals sick with fescue toxicosis. 
 
Craig Roberts is the state forage specialist at the University of Missouri. He says tall fescue is infected with a fungal endophyte. The toxins that it releases cause a number of problems for the grazing animal, such as a rough hair coat, respiratory problems, or the switch of their tail falling off. But he says by far the most damaging effects are those we can't see.
 
"The calving rate can drop from 92-95% down to 55-or-60%, even worse in some years," he says. "Ergot alkaloids cause the blood vessels to narrow, and the blood of course isn't circulated to the extremities. In the summer we believe that's what causes so much of this heat stress. The heat is not dissipated throughout the body and so the core body temperature increases."
 
All types of livestock are affected, and horses are the most sensitive. Roberts encourages producers to have their fescue tested. If it's found to be at a toxic level, he says you can either replant, or manage what's there. There are several practices known to work. 
 
"Dilution is one," says Roberts. "The common dilution forage is something like red clover or white clover. Another practice is to move the cattle off to a non-toxic field during key times of the year, particularly in the summer and late spring. Another practice is supplementation with byproduct feeds."
 
Some people try treating fescue toxicosis with a lot of home remedies, but Roberts says stick with tried-and-true science to ensure the health of your animals. 

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