Note: This article was written for the Bay Journal News Service which was published on May 27, 2014. It was titled, “Please, Step on This Grass”. Click here for a pdf copy.
I was in the Farm Coop store the other day in line to buy some garden seeds. The farmer in front of me ordered fifty pounds of Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue. I thought, “Oh my God, you poor dear, haven’t you heard”?
Those seeds are infected with an internal fungus that secretes an alkaloid that will be toxic to your livestock.
We should not plant another seed of Tall Fescue. Not only is it invasive and non-native (it’s native to Europe), it is toxic to just about everything that consumes it and it inhibits the growth of other plants.
Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is one of the most dominant grasses found in pastures, hayland, lawns, roadsides, wetlands and vacant lots throughout most of North America. It is almost always infected with an internal fungus, an endophyte (Acremonium coenophialum), which produces an alkaloid (ergovaline) that is toxic.
We’ve known for years its grave effects on pregnant horses: abortions, thickened placentas, and limited milk. Cattle get “fescue toxicosis” or “summer slump” which includes elevated body temperature, hoof rot, tail rot, lower conception rates and lower weight gain.
In wildlife biology Fescue is known as the “F” word. According to most wildlife biologists, it is the number one reason our Northern Bobwhite populations have plummeted. That’s because Tall Fescue forms a sod or mat so thick a bird can’t walk through it. Tall Fescue seeds are also toxic to birds. Fescue also creates excellent habitat for meadow voles, which attracts hawks and hawks also kill Bobwhites.
Tall Fescue is toxic to just about anything that eats it. Google it. It’s toxic to dairy cows, beef cows, horses, sheep, goats, birds, grasshoppers, ants and even nematodes. It also cuts down on biodiversity because it takes up space that native biota could have occupied and it’s aggressive.
It’s also toxic to newly planted tree seedlings. This is called allelopathic, when one plant exudes a substance into the soil that inhibits the growth of other plants. This is one of the reasons many riparian forest buffer plantings failed. A two-year-old hardwood seedling inserted into a mature sod of Tall Fescue not only has to compete with the established fescue roots for nutrients and water; it has to overcome the toxins secreted by the endophyte in Tall Fescue.
It’s persistent in the landscape. I call it the toxic waste of the grass kingdom. It is difficult to get rid of. I once had a client tell me he bought a farm with Tall Fescue pasture. He wanted wildlife habitat. So he just “let it go” hoping natural succession would take place. Ten years later it looked exactly the same. The Tall Fescue formed such a dense mat that no seed could get through it and even if it did the allelopathic toxins would cause its demise.
So why does USDA still recommend it and how did it get here in the first place?
A brief history: Livestock farmers are always looking for grass that can produce feed for the longest period of time. University of Kentucky agronomists found what they thought was the “holy grail” of grasses in 1931 in a “holler” in the winter…it was green when all other grasses were dormant. They collected the plant and propagated it. The University released it in 1943 under the name Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue.
Oops. They did not know the plant had an internal fungus that produced an alkaloid that is toxic. We’ve been promoting it ever since, even though we discovered the toxic relationship in the 1970’s.
Okay, I’ll admit tall fescue is good for three things: erosion control, winter grazing and wiping manure off your boots.
Tall Fescue is good for erosion control because it is aggressive and can withstand abuse. Cattlemen have been using it for years to “stockpile” as winter grazing. In other words, they take their cattle off of it in August, fertilize it with nitrogen, let it grow. then graze it during the winter. It is excellent forage in the winter because the toxins aren’t active in cool temperatures.
Okay, it’s everywhere and difficult to get rid of it. How do we deal with it? The first line of defense is to dilute it. Graze it hard then over-seed with clover. There are “endophyte free” varieties of Tall Fescue but these have not proven long-lived.
Two effective ways to kill Tall Fescue include tilling it to death, or a couple of applications of herbicide. Once killed, plant a more desirable forage.
The best remedy though is to never plant another seed of endophyte-infected Tall Fescue. There are many other kinds of grass that can produce forage for livestock without the side effects of the endophyte such as Orchardgrass and smooth brome. Let’s use them.
Always informative. I am glad I have not ever planted any (to my knowledge).
How do you get rid of the stuff in rough riparian areas where it is impossible to disc or spray?
Buff, if it’s impossible to disc or spray you might have to just live with it. How about a backpack sprayer?
Buff has a thrifty young son that would work well with a backpack sprayer!
This is a prime example of how a simple lack of the proper education can have devastating effects. It is the responsibility of the government to step in, balance the pros and cons of it’s existence in a non native environment, and make the appropriate change. We need to move away from the quick fix mindset when it comes to our environment. Things need to start being considered from an ecological standpoint, not an economical one, when regarding our world and it’s ecosystems.
Great article as usual professor. This is a prime example of the lack of critical information provided to consumers. They know the grass grows readily, but are completely clueless to the fact that Tall Fescue is toxic to livestock. This case of tall fescue gives us reason to fully understand the potential harmful effects that could arise from genetically modified food. Currently we are not allowed to test the effects of consuming GMO crops and we may be too late when we finally find a problem. I mean it took 40 years after the discovery of tall fescue for them to discover it’s toxic relationship. Hopefully we don’t rely on crops that have the potential for disaster.
Until reading this blog post, I was unaware of all of the harm Tall Fescue can cause. The part that boggles my mind the most is why is the USDA still promoting this grass when we now know that it is harmful to ecosystems and livestock? Certainly, Tall Fescue does more harm than good. I believe the steps listed to kill Tall Fescue should be taken by any farmer who values having a healthy pasture for their livestock.
It funny that you have us read this because I just read an article in Town and Country magazine telling rich people to plant different varieties of fescue in their yards to prevent soil erosion and the cut down on mowing. It actually looked really pretty in their yards, the magazine photographers did a good job with that one. Now obviously rich suburban yards are a completely different environment than farms. You don’t wants animals around to eat your grass in the suburbs so it wouldn’t matter as much that fescue can be poisonous there but the natural cycles that go on on farms shouldn’t be interrupted by a non-native, aggressive grass. It interesting that this grass is actually endorsed by several different sources even though it is harmful to the ecosystem around it.
I am not a farmer by any means, but I have heard of tall fescue before and each time it was used in a positive connotation such as those mentioned above like erosion control and it being a hearty grass that can grow just about anywhere. I had no idea of its negative side effects such as secreting a toxic alkaloid. I feel that many people are in the same boat as me and are under educated in the topic. People should know both sides before buying products such as this. I will have to keep this message in mind the next time I hear Tall Fescue in order to educate people on what can happen if they are allowing there livestock to graze in fields of Tall Fescue.
I agree with Caitlin. I had to do a double take when I read that the USDA has put the “ok” on Tall Fescue grass. It seems contrary to the thought process that the USDA should have. This grass causes harm to the livestock and the other animals that feed on it. The livestock is then (in some occasions) processed and used as meat for the families in this country. While it may have benefits to it, Tall Fescue is not the grass that farmers should be using on their pastures.
It’s unbelievable that such a common seed has such devastating effects. Until this class, I have never heard of this issue, and I was raised around livestock. It’s shocking to me that the Tall Fescue is still promoted by the USDA. I guess this is just another example of every solution have both the good and the bad. As you pointed out Professor, it’s great for preventing soil erosion however the toxin is obviously harmful. As others have stated in their comments before, education can go a long way. I’m glad you pointed out alternatives to use, now lets hope people listen!
Wow! I am curious, so Tall Fescue is still very common in pastures. Is it well known that the tall fescue is harmful? Also what exactly does the internal fungus that secretes an alkaloid do??
This sounds like yet another issue where education will help in the long-term.
Very interesting and insightful article
I agree with Leah that education will be key in fixing this problem. Its hard to understand why the grass is still so prevalent when it causes such harm to livestock. I would have never thought that it was so harmful because we see it everywhere. It would be nice to see some more varieties.
I see this grass all the time all over the place and had no idea that it was toxic to practically everything. Definitely not something that is common knowledge, yet detrimental to crop growth and restoration of trees. It is convenient that the toxins are dormant in colder weather, which gives tall fescue some uses. But I wonder if there are other potential uses for tall fescue as biomass for energy production. Especially if it grows thick and pretty much year round. Could be something to look into.
It is interesting that as bad as the Tall Fescue is, it still serves some beneficial purposes for the environment. Obviously the cons far out way the pros of Tall Fescue and should be taken care of appropriately. I was wondering if there was any data of the economic impact Tall Fescue has on farmers with livestock? It would be interesting to see if removing all Tall Fescue would greatly increase livestock yields.
Very informative article! I knew fescue was an invasive species, but had never understood the extent of its detrimental effects. I am sure that I am not alone in this lack of awareness. I find that many people support what is familiar without questioning its impacts, and fescue is yet another example. We have grown accustomed to seeing it abundantly in our pastures without stopping to think of its relationship to its environment, and the reasons why it thrives. Now it is clear to me that it survives as a product of its own toxicity and hindrance to neighboring species. People must become aware of these negative effects, and work towards eradicating this nuisance species.
Where im from there was a push to plant as much tall fescue as possible in pastures, along creeks and rivers(to prevent erosion), and along roadsides and it happened. People began planting tons and it was a good thing, it looked beautiful and it held the soil and water content when it rained. but, there was also a crowd pushing for it not to happen and this is because it is toxic to livestock and animals. now instead of a push to plant more, there is a push to get rid of it and go back to natural native grasses and fescue.
So does the USDA believe the benefits of Tall Fescue outweigh the negatives? It baffles me as to why Tall Fescue is still recommended. I agree with Amanda in the fact off I feel like there must be poor education on this subject. I really wonder if the farmer who bought the Tall fescue knew about the toxic alkaloid. To me, it seems like Tall Fescue is the easy way out. I’m guessing farmers still use it because it makes it easier for them to feed their livestock. Just my two cents.
I didn’t realize that tall fescue was this bad towards the ecology around it and for that matter am a little lost as to why stores are selling it at all. Since it is native to Europe does it cause the same problems there as it does in the US?
Before this post, I really never heard much about tall fescue. However, its something that I am glad that I know about now. This article amazes me with the narrow mind of some people. You would think that if you were going to order such a large amount of a certain type of plant that you would do your research and determine if what you were buying was really going to help your farm instead of hurt it. I guess it is a situation where the idea/limited benefits of tall fescue have been passed down over the years and it is just natural for people to continue buying it. Personally, it sounds like farmers that purchase tall fescue are lazy or dont have the time to research into this plant. I guess that is something we will not be able to know. Great article. Glad to know what I know now because of it.
Great article, and as always very informative. I had no idea how dangerous that pesky plant, Kentucky 31, was even though I have grown up around it all my life. I think the issue is, as with most of the blog you post about, clearly regarding education. Even though the plant on the outside seems like a very desirable grass to have in your field it is clear that the harmful effects of tall fescue in the warmer months outweigh any perceived benefits. I believe if the farmer who ordered 50 lbs of Kentucky 31 was educated about exactly what you know, ie. how harmful, and other viable options, I do not believe he would make the same purchase.
I found this to be interesting because it seems to me like tall fescue could be useful when applied in the correct situation. Erosion control and winter grazing are both important uses that the grass can serve. However, because fescue has been used incorrectly for so long, it has a very bad reputation. It would be cool to see fescue used in the right environment where it could do some good.
Because there are many other types of grasses that can accomplish the same results as tall fescue, I’m wondering if the reason for the continuation of planting tall fescue is related to poor public outreach warning of the plant’s toxicity. I was very unaware of the toxicity of tall fescue prior to reading this article. There needs to be more information on the harmful effects of the species. Perhaps the seeds are cheap, thus urging people to lean more towards tall fescue rather than some native plant. However, it just seems to make more sense that a native plant to the Americas would survive more effectively and benefit the land more than a nonnative species. Thank you for the warning Mr. Whitescarver!
Personally I have always kind of liked tall fescue, but that was before today. It was probably because I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid and like you said, the stuff is everywhere. It was great for using as an imaginary sword and the seeds on the end were especially useful for smacking my sisters once or twice. As a little boy who enjoyed cowboys and Indians I would often stick a piece of fescue in my mouth just like it was a piece of hay and I was a cowboy, but after reading this article I probably wont be sticking the stuff in my mouth anymore. There are a lot of environmental wrongs we need to correct and i think we should add the spread of tall fescue to that list. It may not top the list but we can clearly see this grass is evil.
Beginning in 2001 and finishing in 2013 I killed all of the toxic tall fescue on my quarter section cow-calf operation. Doing 10-15 acres/year I eradicated the nasty poisonous grass and replaced it with novel endophyte tall fescue. Universities, back in the 80’s recommended endophyte free tall fescue. In 1-3 years most of it died. Turns out the endophyte was the component that gave the plant the persistence to withstand heavy grazing, insect attacks, disease, extreme heat, etc. Then along came plant breeders with a novel endophyte. The novel endophyte gives the plant excellent persistence (as long as it isn’t grazed into the ground) but does not produce the dreaded toxin, erogvaline. My first stands are now 13 and 14 years old and going strong.
Darrel, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. Good stuff.
It’s interesting to observe the consequences of human action when we act with incomplete information. We thought this fescue would be a boon for farmers, instead it has turned into a mess out competing native species, invading further territory, and causing animal growth problems. Perhaps most amazing is that instead of admitting we are wrong, the USDA has decided to double down and continue to push fescue use when other pasture crops can be planted in it’s place to provide variety to grazers, hold soil, and give back to the land with nitrogen from legumes and biomass from all.
I really only ever heard good things about fescue before listening to your lectures and reading this early. Growing up my dad always talked about how much he loved fescue. After reading this article, I can really see how harmful that fescue is to the animals and the environment around it. I am surprised with how harmful fescue is that I have never heard of the harmfulness and push to remove the use of fescue.
I’m amazed people still plant the K31 blend of tall fescue for grazing despite the current knowledge that it isn’t a healthy grass, especially because there are other known healthy alternatives. Even though it is good for winter feed, there are other ways to adequately provide food for cattle during the winter months. You also mention it is good for erosion control, but there are plenty of other grasses and trees that would be just as effective in erosion prevention. Since it is invasive and so unhealthy/dominant, we should be taking more proactive steps to eliminate it here in the U.S.
It was interesting to read that tall fescue was introduced by professional agronomists after relatively little long-term research. At the same time, however, it is sad to witness yet another story of a seemingly grand scientific discovery being rushed into implementation before ending in catastrophe shortly after. A similar story that comes to mind is the genetically modified Flavr Savr tomato with its pros that blinded even the FDA from the underlying cons that later proved disastrous. The whole trial and error method that is sometimes used in such developmental processes is such risky business that it makes the “all natural” approach to food and other things seem that much better.
Before reading this article I had no idea that Tall Fescue caused so much damage to wildlife as well as farms. Not to mention that is actually released a harmful toxin. However after reading this article I understand the concern for wanting to remove it completely and not have it around. Even though the Tall Fescue is beneficial for winter grazing as well as erosion control, the harm it causes to the wildlife habitat seems to outweigh those benefits. To me it really does not make sense to keep planting such a harmful and invasive species when there are other alternatives, like Orchardgrass, that provide the same benefits as the Tall Fescue.
Its super intriguing that the fescue toxins are not active in the winter! Thats an interesting point someone, that for some reason stands behind fescue, could use as leverage in an argument. Another interesting point you stated was the infection cows can develop from grazing in fescue for extended periods of time. However I found online that this infection is more common in the fall and winter months while the cows are grazing, does fescue excrete more than one harmful toxin? I thought that point was interesting since you said the toxins in the fescue are not active in the winter. Here is the link so you can take a look.
Clark, thanks for sharing that report. I was unaware of the winter effects.
The negative side effects to Tall Fescue overpower the positive effects. Although this demon grass helps erosion control and influences winter grazing, it depletes riparian forest buffers and native plants. This was the part of the blog that stood out to me. Riparian forest buffers are a best management practice that isn’t as successful because of Tall Fescue. I never understand how we allow toxic substances (Tall Fescue, cigarettes, GMOs) continue to be sold after knowing their negative consequences. Instead of using Tall Fescue, people could use alternatives to help erosion control and winter grazing that are native and positive influences on the Earth.
Before reading this blog post and I did not know anything about the Tall Fescue. I had heard it mentioned once when I was talking to a family friend who raises cattle seasonally and had to stop for a few years for an invasion of some species. Talking to her after reading this it was indeed the Tall Fescue. After many years now her fields and livestock are healthy and the problem has been taken under control, but she made a point to say how much she hated the Tall Fescue as well. Now that I have learned more about it is very hard to even appreciate the maybe one positive that it does, because it is so negative and breaks down hard work and BMPs in its path.
This post illustrates the importance of biosecurity. Farmers should take care to do as much research as possible before introducing new ecological parts to their farm. A new species on the farm could be the vector for some parasite or illness. eg. apple-cedar rust from buying cedars or apples at a nursery that has rampant infections. Livestock and plants can also bear infectious diseases that are easier to mitigate than to treat.
(Edited Version Apologies) Prior to taking your ISAT 424 class Professor Whitescarver, I had no clue that fescue was an invasive species. However, this article’s emphasis on how fescue cuts down on biodiversity and how aggressive this invasive species is was not clear to me. I was not aware of the toxicity levels in the plant and the allelopathic properties associated with it. Necessary steps need to be taken to dilute this invasive plant such as what is suggested in the article. I was shocked at the benefits it provides with erosion control and winter grazing, but nonetheless it contains the fungal toxic alkaloid. We can either till it to death or provide applications of herbicide. These tasks sound manageable for most farmers, but tedious. If I were to become a farmer in the future, I will take note of the suggestions to utilize orchardgrass and smooth brome as my main crops replacing tall fescue.
Too bad tall fescue can’t be controlled. If it was more controllable it could be a good way to stabilize stream banks that are not already covered by other types of vegetation, and it wouldn’t be a problem to cattle since hopefully they are fenced off from the stream bed. I wonder how many people are really aware of the negative effects of fescue. I honestly did not know it existed until this class, let alone know the impacts that it has. Getting rid of the species might help more in the conservation efforts since it can have such a large impact on biodiversity. I think that the word needs to get out more about the issues that tall fescue causes, and then maybe more people will get involved with getting rid of it. If it isn’t talked about in overwhelming amounts, no one will probably pay attention to it and believe that its just a regular old plant that does more good than bad. Showing how it can wound the cows would be a good visual aid to raise awareness. I wonder if the wounds caused by the grass lead to more infections/sicknesses in cows. No one wants to eat that!
The example of tall fescue shows the true dangers of introducing non-native species to environments without proper research. It is very surprising that this continues to be promoted, despite the known effect, but as Hannah so aptly put, we see the same thing in many other aspects of our culture. Although there are benefits to fescue, I think that the negative consequences far outweigh the positive. There are suitable, native options that could be implemented with the same success and hopefully those options will become the norm in our lifetime.
There are too many negative side effects to using tall fescue. The amount of damage and harm it causes to the environment and wildlife is not worth the risk. More people should be aware of its dangers and he alternatives you mentioned in this article. I believe if the public were truly warned about the damages that tall fescue can create it would definitely minimize its usage drastically. I know I was unaware of this issue and I was definitely appalled in learning about the toxicity of tall fescue when reading this article. The cons of tall fescue definitely outweigh the pros. I definitely agree that we should not plant another seed of tall fescue. People should look more into native species that are actually helpful and not harmful to everything around us.
I had never heard of tall fescue before reading this article, but this was quite an eye opening read. The most shocking part of this article is how this grass is still being promoted and sold as grass for pasture – especially given its toxicity. I must admit, I almost admire its stubborn nature and I find it very analogous to the American chestnut blight. Nature has given it the perfect tools to thrive and flourish and as a result it simply dominates over its competition. Unfortunately this ends up in failed riparian buffers and toxic soils 🙁
This article really puts into perspective the tumble down the food chain that causes disease and endangers specific species of wildlife. It makes you wonder if those taxa higher on the food chain can develop adverse side effects from consuming lower trophic levels that feed on the grass. As for keeping it under control, many people do not realize that once they manage to control the fescue with tillage, they must maintain a relatively dense vegetation cover with the desired plants. If the area is mowed frequently after eradication, this leaves the area exposed to re-infestation through dormant seeds or seed migration. Tilling in the fall and exposing what lives in temperature controlled ground to the freezing temperatures is also something to consider when trying to rid yourself of this grass. The problem may not be cut and dry with all of the rippling effects, but the solution is. Reading this made me understand the lesser known complications with fescue and stressed the importance of the need to eradicate it.
Looking at both the benefits and drawbacks of using Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue, I believe the negatives vastly outweigh the positives. The main argument proponents of tall fescue would have seems to only be its use as a winter feed, but while that is good the negatives are too much for tall fescue to be worth using. The way tall fescue hinders other plant growth has many large effects on operations some might not realize at first. The movement in the Chesapeake Bay watershed relies heavily on trying to install riparian buffer zones along tributaries, and if this one plant can cause a buffer not to succeed it should not be planted again. I believe this hindrance of other plants is more than enough to stop planting tall fescue, but when additionally taking into account how it is also sometimes toxic to livestock and its invasive behavior, I cannot see how anyone would still be okay planting Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue.
I am shocked that Tall Fescue is not a native species to North America. If this is the grass I think it is, then I have seen in nearly everywhere and it massive abundance. Its surprising to hear it is toxic to so many organisms, especially when it appears harmless at first glance. Its very unfortunate to learn that it has such great features such as erosion control, winter grazing but contains toxin. If it were possible to inactivate the toxin or remove it completely, it would be a very feed grass. Its hardiness will be ideal in the future due to global climate change and its effects on climate sensitive crops.
I knew that Tall Fescue was allelopathic, non-native, and invasive, but after reading this article I now see how bad it really is for the livestock, wildlife and environment. I think that education about the harms Tall Fescue should be spread to the farming community. I wonder if they will ever ban the sale of Tall Fescue seeds. I’m surprised that they even sell the seeds of invasive, non-native species. Having a field of clover or another native plant that is good for the wildlife is a much healthier option for the environment and it looks better too!
After learning about invasive grass species, such as Tall Fescue and Japanese Stiltgrass, I have noticed them both on farms in the area. Everyone, including myself, usually thinks that any green plant in the ground is good. If people were educated on the invasive species in the area, then they might take notice to the grasses and other species in their own backyard. It is concerning that farmers who are actively planting the invasive species don’t know what they are adding to and taking away from the ecosystem. If a similar non-invasive grass could be introduced instead of the continuous growth of Fescue, the ecosystems of the area could become more diverse and overall, healthier.
I’ve witnessed the growth of tall fescue in my backyard my whole life, but this is my first time hearing that this “F word” is toxic. The picture of the cow’s fescue foot is very concerning and it’s even more upsetting that this plant continues to be consumed. It’s clear that tall fescue has many pros, but the cons appear to out-weigh advantages like soil erosion prevention and wiping manure. It would be interesting to read up on some case studies about how individuals killed the fescue and whether their specific remedy worked.
Wow, I am shocked to have learned all of this regarding fescue. I knew it was bad for pregnant horses but I was not aware that it could cause infections such as the fescue foot! This is very concerning to me considering its abundance in Virginia; you’d figure that if people have known about its toxicity since the 1970s we would be more educated and stop buying it to purposefully plant and feed livestock.
Its crazy to me that this plant causes so much harm, and people are still buying it. There should be a law that disallows the selling of this plant. It was also amazing to me that this invasive species causes so much damage to livestock. Its also really interesting to me that the USDA promotes such a harmful grass. It often makes me double think anything that the government says is good for you.
KY 31 tall fescue pastures are the predominant cool – season grass in this area. Experience shows that KY 31 is a very durable grass, able to come through the droughts of 2012 and 2013 (as well as the non – native bermudagrass) when improved fescues (endophyte free and endophyte friendly) failed. Orchardgrass and timothy were also seriously hurt by the droughts. KY 31 can be managed with clover overseedings to dilute the effects. USDA in this area doesn’t necessarily promote seeding it, but realizes that it is a durable pasture grass that protects the thin topsoils in this area. They recommend good grazing practices as well as clover overseeding already mentioned. But the issue is the ability of the grass to control pasture erosion when other grasses fail due to periodic droughts, followed by high rainfall events.
Ben, thanks for stopping by and posting a comment. Good comments.
thank you for this informative article. a neighbor told me of a friend who had 150 bales of grass for sale very cheap. i looked at the grass and they told me it was K31. the endophyte issue is not unknown to me, but i did not know that K31 was a fescue.
i have the beginning of my milk goat herd and all the girls are due to deliver in about a month. brought one bale home to see how they liked it and they ate it fine. for the next 5 days they have been off on their feed (rations of mixed corn, oats and barley), sometimes not eating at all their beloved grain. now i think i know why.
I can’t thank you enough for this article. the purchase is cancelled and i believe my goats will recover. God bless you.
Thank you for your kind words Ron. I hope your goats recover. There are plenty of other choices for hay. Good luck to you.
Looks good in my front yard though.
If tall Fescue is so bad for plants and animals then why is it still so popular across North America? I understand its benefits and I also understand the initial Kentucky research that hailed it as such a savior crop, but shouldn’t farmers and herders be fully educated on how bad it is by now? Furthermore, should these farmers and herders be seeing the damage that it is doing to their livestock and other animals? This fescue issue, along with all the other issues we discuss in class, are so frustrating to learn about because it seems as though they are all problems that are simply caused by lack of education. All the major problems we discuss exist because farmers and herders lack information, and they lack the knowledge to make the simple fixes that not only would benefit them in the long run, but the environment as well.
Nick, so true, so true.
Really informative article! I had no idea that tall fescue caused so much harm, even though the species can be useful. I knew that tall fescue was an invasive species, but I wasn’t educated on the negative impacts of the species. I didn’t know that the seeds of the fescue are infected with a fungus that secretes a toxic alkaloid. Now that I’m more educated on the harm that fescue causes, it baffles me as to why it is still recommended by the USDA. Why haven’t they found better alternatives for erosion control, winter grazing, and wiping off manure?
I’m saddened to think of the poor livestock being poisoned by their food. It makes me want to broadcast this information out to everyone I know, whether it affects their lives or not. There are some benefits to K31 it seems, so it wouldn’t make sense to remove it from the shelves. Perhaps Co-ops and other ag companies can hold educational events at their stores. They could talk about the pros and cons of all their products. Another idea would be to have easy to read buying-guides along the aisles. Of course there’s an opportunity for bias, so the store operators would have to be careful of their sources. Then the customer would have to read it, which may or may not happen. Regardless, I think with enough effort more and more people will learn of its dangers and it will become a nonissue.
The negatives of tall Fescue highly outweigh the positives. If it is known to be so terrible and toxic, I don’t understand why farmers are still using it when there are other alternatives. Being that the toxic relationship was discovered in 1970, shouldn’t it be common knowledge by now to not plant tall Fescue on your farm because of how harmful it is? Through all the issues we go over in this class, the common theme seems to be lack of knowledge with so many farmers. It is so frustrating to see such simple fixes for environmental issues but because no-one is educating themselves on these issues the environment is hurting in the long run.
Wow, this tall fescue really seems like something not to mess with. I cannot believe that one plant has gotten so dominant to the point where no other plant can stand in it’s way. It seems that this plant has gone through some serious natural selection to get to the point it’s at now, toxic to other plants and animals. It’s really disappointing that even after the plant was found to be toxic, nothing was done about it and it is still continuing to be promoted today. It seems there are two real things this plant is good for, which could be helpful if this plant is well-maintained to ensure it will not grow out of control. With that being said, fescue could easily be replaced by native non-invasive species.
This was a great article because to my knowledge I was not aware of the devastating effects that the fescue may cause. I have heard of fescue being poisonous to the livestock but was not aware of the internal fungus that secretes an alkaloid. Also i was unaware of the fungus being dormant due to the colder temperatures. To me i have seen it as most such as a soil erosion deterrent. I believe it is the lack of knowledge that is seen across the country with a plant like this that is ultimately having a negative impact on the farming world that is not even noticed. More people need to be educated on subjects such as tall fescue and the impacts it poses before just planting it without doing their research. Thanks for the informative read!
This is very interesting… The grass I have grown up around is toxic in ways I never knew! One of our biggest enemy’s is the educational outreach towards the public and environmental stakeholders. People simply dont realize the repercussions for their actions, and quite often to their disadvantage. Fescue is just a small part of the larger problem we need to solve when it comes to climate change.
It will never cease to amaze me that there is so much information out there and yet people have no idea. I’m sure that farmer would not have purchased the Tall Fescue if he had known what damages it was going to bring! You would think that more farmers would want to be more educated about what crops to grow! I wonder if some farmers have just a sheer lack of interest in developing more knowledge about something they already, or think they already, know how to do. It confuses me that there are farmers like you, Professor Whitescarver, who stay in tune with new information and try your best to maintain your farm using the best practices. And then there are the farmers that don’t seem to care at all about bettering their farm. Either way, I hope you said something to the farmer in front of you!
Nichole, I love your opening sentence. I’m going to write that in my journal!
It frustrates me that once the toxic relationship with the grass and it’s fungus was discovered in the 1970’s that the science wasn’t relied on. It has still continuously been promoted even though there are clearly native species that could provide just as well. I would trust my decisions that are made on scientific discovery any day over propoganda.
Before reading this blog post, I had no idea just how harmful tall fescue was. I had heard that fescue was invasive and should be removed, but I had no idea how far reaching it is. With all of the information on it there is, it blows my mind that a farmer, or any land owner, would ever go out of their way to get tall fescue seeds. The harmful impact that fescue has on their land, and wherever else the seeds may migrate to, is so great, so why would anyone want it on their land?
I never knew about this before reading your post! I had no idea of the toxic effects that it had because of the internal fungus. It seems to me like if farmers knew it was so toxic they wouldn’t use it. But maybe not everybody knows the effects it has. It definitely seems like lack of education is a recurring problem, so thank you for educating me on information about Fescue I never knew before.
It’s weird how first impressions cement within our minds so easily. If we found out how dangerous and invasive this plant is, why haven’t we understood that it has negatives. You mentioned tall fescue’s more admirable qualities, which is important to note and may be the reason so many people stick with it, but since we pushed it on people since first discovery, we have an out of hand problem. For any small farmer, without power tools and against chemicals, it would be near impossible to be rid of a tall fescue infestation,a dn anything against small farmers sucks, in my opinion.
Very good information! Thank you, professor Whitescarver. One of the farms I work at has been planting orchardgrass to outcompete Japanese stilt grass. I am glad they chose an endophyte-free grass for their sheep!
On another note, it is shocking that the USDA still recommends it despite the evidence against it that was discovered ~forty years ago.
I understand how tall fescue is undesirable to grazing fields, but one of my questions that this article brought to my mind is this; with the advancements in biotechnology, why can’t we remove the endophyte from the plant so that the tall fescue is not so toxic to surrounding plants? Unless I am misunderstanding, this grass is resilient enough to survive the winter conditions and that is not because of the endophyte, so I could see the potential for this grass to still be a good grazing grass, but if it didn’t have this fungus in it then it would not be such an invasive plant and could actually be a decent grass to feed cattle of horses. This article was definitely enlightening and again just surprises me that so much of our country continues to use such poor farming practices without feeling the need to change their ways.
Joe, thanks for your comment. Agronomists are working on breeding the endophyte out, or making the endophyte non-toxic. There are several varieties on the market now, but they have not proven to be as long lived yet.
This post is just more proof that outreach and education are necessary in the agricultural industry. These people are not dumb, just using outdated products that were hailed as a panacea for their problems regarding grass in the 1970s. The information about the dangers of Tall Fescue could be spread to just a few farmers. This could change their buying habitats when they see the benefits and spread the information further to their friends and colleagues. With outreach change will come.
It’s amazing that this information on the toxicity of Tall Fescue has been known since the 1970s, and yet it is still being endorsed and planted on farms. Farmers that do use this grass probably do not know that it so harmful to livestock and seedling growth. It is crazy to think that even a renowned organization like the USDA is still endorsing Tall Fescue. Maybe this information was not published widely enough, or farmers and organizations do not do their research before working on a farm! It’s too bad that the livestock have to suffer due to the unawareness of the farmers to its harmfulness.
Very informative article! I don’t understand how there can be so much knowledge about the negative effects of fescue out there, yet people still continue to use it. It seems to me that there are other options for cover crops in the winter that are native and less toxic to the ecosystem. I had no idea that fescue was an invasive species, specifically because it is so widely used! It is a shame to see that farmers still use the crop while knowing the effects that it can have on the ecosystem and animals that interact with the plant.
I had a similar thought as Brielle when reading that the USDA still promotes Tall Fescue 46 years after discovering its toxic characteristics. I don’t know if I quite understand the USDA’s perspective there. Do they still promote it because of its erosion control and winter grazing uses? There are definitely multiple alternatives to Tall Fescue as you mentioned and if the USDA would just promote a quality alternative with an explanation of the toxicity of this plant to both animals and other plants, I feel as though it would be a good start to weeding out (pun intended) the Tall Fescue.
I had no idea that grass can be toxic. I have heard of farmers in particular disliking fescue, but was not aware of its effects in their entirety. We need to educate people that small choices they make can have lasting consequences on others and the environment.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Just like you can hand a person facts and research, but it’s up to them to take action. I guess it’s disappointing to see the apathy in our world these days. It reminds me of a time that my roommate tried to argue with me about Tyson products. I informed her of all the research I had found about it, and it’s negative impact on our environment and she just responded with “so? It’s cheap and it tastes good.” We cannot settle for convenience anymore. People need to know that their actions make a difference, and that by choosing not to plant anymore tall fescue seeds that will be making a positive impact on the environment and the creatures being effected by its toxicity. Not only do people need to feel empowered they need to take the time to education themselves. Google makes everything available at the tips of our fingers. We can no longer hide our actions behind our ignorance and apathy. It’s time to make a change
Hope, thank you so much for your comments. Spot on!
This is very interesting to show how the mindsets of people can be so different. With more educated people and more information getting out more and more people are changing their ways and their voting with the dollar or the use of fields. I feel like the only way to really fix this problem is by more and more education efforts to farmers and similar people who plant and foster the invasive species of the Kentucky Tall Fescue.
Wow, I think I’ve seen this in my backyard at home. Luckily our pets can’t get to it. It grows down by the stormwater pond and spreads incredibly fast. Good to know that its toxic, though I feel sorry for all the little critters that found that out the hard way. I looked up a picture of the Northern Bobwhite and they’re gorgeous! Down with fescue and up with Bobwhites!
Molly, well said.
It is crazy to me that the USDA is still promoting its use if there are known toxins and negative side effect of planting it. Especially, since it is known to decrease weight gain in livestock. The most interesting thing that I got from this article was the fact that the toxins aren’t active in colder temperatures! Maybe there is a place for the tall fescue but it seems that its place definitely isn’t on the farm. Thanks for this article!
Very interesting and informative article on fescue awareness. I had no idea just how harmful fescue is not only to plants, but just about everything that surrounds it. It also seems tough that fescue is one of the few grasses that isn’t effected by erosion, making it even harder to mitigate. Even though this grass is erosion resistant, the biodiversity decreases created by this grass are not worth the hassle.
Stick with me, please. I have a critical question at the end of this testimonial: I’m dealing with this problem firsthand. I tilled under about a half acre of a fescue field and overseeded sweet clover, white clover, and lacy phacelia/purple tansy for my bees. I thought it was being slow to germinate, but never grew these 3 before so didn’t no what to expect. I finally did get germination, but still, plants seemed awfully slow and weren’t thriving. Meanwhile, grass started to come back up. I could see plenty of purple tansy, in particular, 1-3″ tall, in the mix. Okay, I sez, it’s just slow. Then one day, over in the blackberries ringing the area, I noticed purple tansy a foot tall and a foot wide, flowering, and beautiful, bees working it like crazy! What a stark difference! I should have known better: I actually did a paper in college about allelopathy – but it’s one thing to write a paper, another entirely to be smacked in the face with it. I had no idea it was this strong an effect; if I had, I would have Round-Upped the snot out of the field a couple times before tilling. Now my question: what would be the most effective selective herbicide to use on this devil’s weed, that won’t hurt my broadleaf plants? I think I have some Revolver around here somewhere, but is it the most effective? I’m still holding out hope for my mix; but should I give them up and start over? Is there anything I can do in addition to spraying and killing the fescue, maybe afterwards, to mitigate the allelopathic chemicals in the soil? How persistent are they?
Many thanks for your feedback, and thanks for the article!!
Update on my previous post: there is also substantial Johnson grass in that same field, another allelopathic grass, so all my questions about tall fescue apply to it as well. Thanks!
Jamey, thank you for posting your comment. You will be okay. I suggest the herbicide “Poast”. Just google it, it will come up. It is labeled to apply directly to the grass but I would not recommend spraying while your wonderful blooms are out. The herbicide may have an affect on the bees. Wait until your blooms are done, then spray the grass. Good luck and let me know how it goes.
I had come to that same conclusion about Poast after doing a little digging. The clovers and tansy aren’t even close to blooming, so I’m gonna spray away. Many thanks!
Jamey, you are welcome!
This is an older article with some good info, but it would have been MUCH more helpful had he suggested alternative grasses. Now I don’t want tall fescue, but am left to wonder where I should turn next for my horse pastures…..
Sally, thanks for your read and comment. I do suggest other grasses at the end of the article. One of my favorites is smooth bromegrass. For pasture, I would plant a variety of grasses such as orchardgrass, timothy and smooth brome.
I was very surprised by much of this article…while we briefly learned about the toxins that tall fescue produces, I didn’t image such drastic effects that it has on livestock and the other animals & plants in the ecosystem. I knew that it could harm plants/compete with them and that’s why we had to scalp it away before we planted trees. While it surely has its benefits, the USDA could definitely start promoting a more reasonable option for pasture and other ground cover to avoid these consequences.
Until this semester in this class and several others, I did not ever consider all the types of grass that can be planted. I knew of a few invasive grasses that I had worked to remove, but I guess I just never thought about it that much. Learning about what grasses can do that is good or bad for an ecosystem is fascinating and just shows how much every aspect of an ecosystem affects the entire system. It always amazes me how quickly sales and promotion of a new product (green death, GMOs, etc) can exceed the scientific knowledge on the new product. Very often, we take new scientific discoveries and widely implant them before we figure out the effects they can/do have on the health of the environment and all organisms that are affected by the uninformed implementation of new products. What is even more shocking is when promotion of a product continues, when there has been research that shows negative effects of using a product. As you said, it is known that green death has known toxins and known negative effects, yet it is still promoted and therefore widely used.
I used to play soccer throughout my childhood into high school. I was vaguely aware of the various types of grass because of soccer. I was never knowledgeable of the negative consequences of such a grass. From this blog, it is obvious that fescue is very dominant. It has various tactics to overcome other plant species in addition to animals, which is amazing to me. The allelopathic trait is really very impressive to me. It is incredible that a species of grass can hold so much power, especially on other animal species. It is also alarming to know that fescue was still promoted even with the knowledge of its drastic effects.
It is amazing to me that one of the most dominant grasses found in pastures, hay lands, lawns, roadsides, wetlands and vacant lots throughout North America is one of the most toxic grasses to both livestock and other plants. It is one thing to hear that it can give animals hoof rot, but actually seeing the pictures makes it more real. It is terrible that this fungus can cause so many detrimental effects to the animals and makes me wonder why farmers would continue buying it. There are many other grasses available to farmers that should be utilized. There could be other reasons that farmers would want to use fescue, but if using it to feed the livestock in the winter is the main reason, it would be beneficial for them to change to using hay or another alternative so that they will not have to battle it when the weather is warmer and the plant can do more damage. I am very surprised that an invasive specie that has been known to cause issues for so many years has not been taken care of yet.
This article brought up some points that I had never thought of about tall fescue. I know it was invasive and fast spreading, as well as secreting toxins to eliminate competition. I did not know that this toxic also had an impact on the livestock itself. Its hard to believe that people would intentionally plant such a species, which has so many negative impacts.
Although I’ve likely encountered tall fescue several times in my life, I have never heard the name until this year. From what I have learned, it doesn’t sound like it should be planted intentionally (because there are better options out there) and should be removed where possible (due to its toxicity). Education and spreading awareness seems like the best way to confront issues like the widespread nature of tall fescue. You do a such a great job of spreading awareness of variety of pressing issues, including the “green death”, through your blog and enthusiastic lectures. I’ve learned so much from you and am very thankful for your teachings.
Quintin, thank you very much for your most kind words and for your tenacity to learn. You will go far…
It amazes me that something so toxic is still being widely used in the agricultural industry. While Tall Fescue is good for erosion control, the negative side effects it has on livestock seem to severely outweigh the benefits, since animals can ultimately die from it.
I understand that Kentucky once called it a savior crop, by why is it still so commonly used? One would think that people would be aware of the information presented in this article by now… so are people just ignoring the facts because using fescue is a common practice and they are opposed to change?
Good questions, Elena. I think it’s a brain thing…sociological.
Upon reading this article I will never look at grass the same. Being an avid landscaper I have always been into grooming lawns but never actually knew what I was cutting such as the type of grass. Knowing that Fescue can have a toxin so powerful that it can cause abortions in horses and create a rotten foot in cattle, I will be sure to look for it more often. I can’t believe that farmers are still willing to use it even after learning about the drastic side effects it can have on the environment and their livestock, when there are plenty of other options. I found this article to be very informative and it has opened my eyes to observing more than just a blade of grass.
I did not know much about invasive species before taking your natural resource management course. It is shocking to me how many invasive species are thriving around Rockingham county and the U.S. as a whole. From my experience working on a local small-scale farm battling stilt grass, I can only imagine how hard it is to eradicate tall fescue from a pasture once it has been seeded. It has become evident how important it is as a farmer to be aware of all the species of plants growing on farmland and pastures. Many invasive species will take over and out compete intentionally planted grass species if left unchecked. On the farm that I work with, we are seeding for orchard grass as an alternative to stilt grass, but being an organic farm that means we have had to do a lot of weeding to rid the stilt grass. Orchard grass is a good alternative to other grasses because sheep and other livestock like to grave on it and it sequesters more carbon than other grasses.
This article really opened my eyes to the negative impacts of tall fescue. I remember working for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation this last weekend planting trees and learning how destructive fescue is to the growth of those trees. We had to clear the fescue so that toxins would not kill off the newly planted trees. After reading this article, it all fits together for why fescue is such destructive species, especial for individuals in the agricultural industry. I knew that plants had the ability to emit toxins into the soil to kill off other plants, but I had know idea that the toxins could also impact the health of livestock that graze on fescue. This just goes to show how systemic ecosystems are, so that once one toxin is added to a system, it is difficult to stop those impacts from accumulating throughout trophic levels of the ecosystem. Based on my experience with fescue and everything that was stated in this article, I think it would be smart for land owners to stop planting fescue, especially when there are many other reasonable options to use as replacements.
It’s a shame that we waste so much space on this grass. We could be doing so much more. I ran into this problem recently in my personal experience. I was involved in a project that was going to plant many different kinds of fruit and nut trees in a community outdoor area. Unfortunately, the owners of the land decided to plant the area with grass instead. It’s a sad waste of potential. Hopefully we can do something.
I feel like Tall Fescue is the fast food of grasses. It’s so bad for everything it comes into contact with yet we still push it as a cheap alternative that can be useful in some ways. It’s most likely cheap and gets the job done for one solution, but later it comes back to haunt you and over time it’s just a bad idea and will be toxic and have negative repercussions.
I love the analogy!
I find it shocking that such a harmful graze became so widespread and popular despite the adverse effects. It seems that knowledge of this toxic grass is not widely known if people are still buying and planting tall fescue. Over the weekend we worked worked hard to plant trees with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and had to remove a bunch of tall fescue in order to make sure the trees we planted flourished. Before that experience I never thought about the differences in grass and seeing it’s effect first hand has definitely opened my eyes.
I am shocked that more farmers are not aware of the damage that tall fescue has on their land. Not only does it harm cattle by hurting their feet, lowering their weight below a healthy point, and having grave effects on pregnant horses, it also makes it hard for other types of plants and crops to grow. Despite all of this being public knowledge, the USDA still recommends tall fescue to farmers. That is very surprising to me. Hopefully more farmers will do their research by reading articles and blog posts such as yours before making the huge mistake of planting tall fescue in their pastures.
This article really highlights how just one species can have drastic ecological effects on every living organism within its ecosystem. While we were given brief information on the invasive species in class, reading the extent to which it effects cattle, horses, and other plant species paints a picture of toll a non-native species can have on its surrounding environment. Generally, I would assume that increasing biodiversity is nothing but beneficial to an ecosystem, but it is interesting to see that that is not always the case. Whats even more intriguing about Tall Fescue is that while it produces toxic ecological effects to a variety of organisms, there are still some pros to planting the species such as erosion control and winter grazing. I feel as though this is where confliction with planting Tall Fescue comes into play. Are the benefits from the species worth consequences it has on surrounding plant species, riparian buffers and livestock? After reading this article, I am curious to know how and why the USDA still recommends it even though the negative long-term effects from Tall Fescue are known.
Daniel, thanks for your comment and your question. I have tried several times to get USDA to kill their recommendation without success. We’ll keep trying.
Okay…let’s step back a bit and consider some things. When KY-31 was released there was a paucity of cool season grasses that would persist in the southeast and other similar environments. Winters were brown and dead; soil erosion was severe. It was discovered in 1931 growing on a steep hillside in KY. It was released as KY-31 in 1943 and the govt helped to fund the planting of millions of acres in the 40’s and 50’s. We’ve got about 34 million acres now. Tall fescue has saved millions of tons of topsoil that would have otherwise ended up in streams, rivers, and oceans causing untold damage. It wasn’t long after the planting of these millions of acres of tall fescue that associated animal disorders began to be reported. It was a mystery until the late 1970’s as to what was causing these disorders. The discovery of the endophytic fungus changed everything. Easily removed from the seed, endophyte-free varieties were released in the 1980’s and were found to not be nearly as tough as the old KY-31. The relationship between the endophyte and the grass is a mutualistic symbiosis. The plant gives the fungus room and board and the fungus protects the plant from overgrazing, drought, insects, and disease. The fungus is asexual and is only transmitted through the seed. Naturally occurring non-toxic endophytes were discovered by New Zealanders in the 1990’s and have been inserted into elite tall fescue cultivars that persist and provide healthy nutrition to grazing animals AND still benefit the plant. Several fescue varieties with these novel endophytes have been on the market for nearly 20 years now. The existing 34 million acres of toxic tall fescue are still out there and will need to be replaced…a daunting task but doable.
Thank you, Chris, for your comment. And for the record, you work for a seed company that sells novel endophyte fescue.
This is news to me! Its crazy that such a simple plant can be so devastating to many forms of life in an ecosystem. I can see how it became so prevalent in a wide variety of ecosystems due to the cultivation of it for being a “winter grass” but the benefits definitely do not outweigh the downsides to this dangerous plant. It seems like a stiff plant that would be great for erosion control, but would it be worth it at the cost of the surrounding plants and other wildlife? This problem should definitely be dealt with as soon as possible before it becomes an even bigger problem and will be almost impossible to get rid of.
My understanding about tall fescue is that it is only toxic if eaten too low to the ground. Farmers that apply rotational grazing don’t allow the cattle to stay on that pasture long enough to be eaten down to that point that it causes to toxicity. As you stated, it becomes non toxic in the cold months, which allows for stock pilling for winter grazing. That being said, it does serve as a good food source if grazed properly.