Fescue Forages

Answers to fighting the fescue toxicity battle

It is well-documented that the reduced productivity of cattle and other livestock in the more-than 35 million acres of tall fescue known as the “Fescue Belt” is challenging when temperatures start to rise every year. After spending plenty of time lately to look out the window of my office at the rapidly growing spring grass, I have also spent a fair amount of time talking with customers about their efforts to reduce some of the typical problems related to fescue toxicity. The quickly growing grass and impending warm weather mean that the levels of ergot alkaloids that we associate with fescue toxicity in cattle and other livestock will be rising in our pastures. Some of the problems associated with these alkaloids include the slow shedding of winter hair coats, the slower growth of our calf crop, lower reproduction rates in cows, a diminished immune response to challenges and increased levels of heat stress. Greater heat stress can lead to more rapid breathing and more energy burned in an effort to stay cool, which, in turn, often leads to more time spent in the shade or water instead of grazing.

Despite fescue having tremendous agronomic attributes, a study conducted several years ago found that the industry-wide economic losses that result from reduced growth and reproduction due to fescue toxicity were estimated to total more than $3.2 billion (Kallenbach, 2015).

Is there a way to prevent the toxic effects of fescue instead of trying to treat already-affected animals?

With this approach in mind, several years ago, Alltech researchers discovered that a the glucomannan with yeast had a strong affinity for binding the suspected chemicals involved in fescue toxicity, known collectively as ergot alkaloids. A study by Akay et al. in 2003 demonstrated how this component of hydrolyzed yeast increased the excretion of alkaloids in the feces of cattle fed toxic fescue seed.

Focusing on this affinity, follow-up animal experiments showed that feeding the same product to cows grazing toxic fescue pastures resulted in improved body condition scores and conception rates (Aaron et al., 2006; Ely et al., 2006) and that feeding it to stocker cattle resulted in increased body weight gain (Akay et al., 2003a).  

Trial data has consistently revealed lower feed intakes, especially in hot weather, when cattle graze toxic fescue pastures. More recent research continues to explore the exact causes of these problems in livestock, as well as ways to alleviate their symptoms. Learning more about why intake is depressed — which can drive some of the issues related to reduced growth and contribute to lower milk production — would give producers better means of improving the production efficiency of their herds. Research undertaken at the University of Kentucky over the past few years has studied reduced rumen motility and the subsequent impact on intake as it affects growth (Koontz, “Effects of endophyte-infected fescue, alkaloid ingestion on energy metabolism, nitrogen balance, in situ feed degradation and ruminal passage rates,” Ph.D. dissertation, 2013; Riccioni, “Influence of ergot alkaloids on rumen motility…,” master’s thesis, 2017). These studies theorize that “rumen fill” may be a major contributor of reduced intake and, as a result, may have a negative impact on productivity. We also know that heat stress plays a large part in reduced feed intake, and elevated body temperature is another symptom of fescue toxicity. The focus, then, must be on products that counteract these effects on intake reduction and heat stress and the resulting challenges for cattle production.

With these studies in mind, Alltech’s FEB-200™ is now a vital additive in the fescue line of products from SWEETLIX. Both loose minerals and Bovalyx® low-moisture blocks have been formulated to address the challenges of cattle grazing toxic fescue. Multiple studies have indicated that copper status is often compromised when cattle graze toxic fescue, leading to long, rough hair coats and increased morbidity due to compromised immune function (Koontz, Ph.D. dissertation, 2013). All SWEETLIX and Bovalyx fescue products contain additional copper and zinc to help overcome these deficiencies while also providing the maximum level of selenium permitted. In addition, the critical trace minerals included in SWEETLIX® are formulated at levels that will help cattle overcome other challenges caused by fescue, including poor reproduction and a compromised immune response.

Which SWEETLIX products will help prevent the negative effects of fescue toxicity? 

For producers who want to use a loose mineral for their supplementation program, there are two options with FEB-200. SWEETLIX® Classic Fescue Balancer with Mag and SWEETLIX® Blueprint® Fescue FEB-200™ Mineral with ClariFly® (for fly control) offer both a high-mag option for the prevention of grass tetany and fly control. As mentioned previously, these products are optimally fortified with minerals and vitamins for high production in growing and breeding cattle. Organic or chelated trace minerals have been shown to help improve conception rates and intake and boost the immune system. SWEETLIX Blueprint Fescue FEB-200 contains the newest generation of research-proven formulations, with 100% of the trace minerals copper, zinc, manganese, cobalt and selenium provided in the organic/chelated form for improved production and a reduced environmental impact. We continue to hear from customers about the benefits of using the Blueprint line of products for higher weaning weights and improved breeding performance.

Low-moisture blocks (LMB) are proven to improve the digestion of forages, and when digestion is improved, rumen fill is reduced and intake improves for better productivity! Included in the Bovalyx lineup with FEB-200 is Bovalyx® 20% Fescue Max LMB in a 200-pound tub. For a low-intake, complete nutritional package on fescue, consider how well your cattle will perform on this low-moisture block.

For more information about any of these SWEETLIX/Bovalyx options, click the link below or visit Sweetlix.com.