The Fear of Fescue
Is it fact or fallacy that goats can't eat fescue?
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Red bag, abortions, thickened placentas, founder, necrosis, failure to freshen — all are symptoms of fescue toxicity … and yet tall fescue is one of the most common forages for livestock in both pasture and baled grass hay.
For the record: fescue can be fed to goats. Including kids.
Troy Lohman of TNT Farms now runs almost 1,000 goats a year. “I’ve fed fescue all my life to cattle and for the 27 years I’ve had goats. It’s grazed, and excess fescue is baled and fed through the winter.”
Native to Europe, tall fescue was brought to the U.S. in the 1800s. It grows well in areas where other forages do not and are easy to maintain. It is insect-resistant, tolerates drought, cold, poor soil, foot traffic, and has a long growing season. Many producers rely on fescues for early spring and late fall grazing.
Kellen Weissenbach of Little Platte Farms has been raising goats for more than 20 years and is a fescue fan. “Fescue quickly develops a usable stand in early spring while most of the other cool-season grasses take an additional two or three weeks to emerge from dormancy. During years when hay is in short supply and expensive, these extra two to three weeks of grazing time can translate into a more predictable food supply and cost savings for the farmer. We graze goats on fescue and feed it as hay. No issues, solid weight gains, and frankly the hardiest and most adaptable grass stands you’re going to get in much of the U.S. All of our fields have at least some fescue. It’s unavoidable here.”
Stone Valley Ranch feeds fescue as hay as well as forage. Matthew Hall says, “Fescue is important to me because it stockpiles well for late grazing and is green and nutritious while my summer grasses have already gone dormant.”
The hardiness of fescue is attributed to an endophytic fungus, often called simply an “endophyte” (endo = within, phyte = plant). In the 1970s, after noticing issues with cattle grazing fescue fields, researchers discovered that the same endophyte that protects the plant also produces ergot alkaloids. Ergot alkaloids can cause a number of ill effects in livestock. There are hundreds of species of fescue— some more affected by endophytes than others.
When discussing the risk, it is important to know the cultivar. There are some varieties — referred to as “novel” — that produce an endophyte toxic to insects but not toxic to livestock. Fescue is not the culprit — it is the endophyte status and alkaloid concentration that results in problems for livestock. Most conversations about toxicity refer to two specific endophyte-infected (EI) varieties Kentucky 31, nicknamed the “Wonder Grass,” and Alta, that were isolated and made commercially available in the 1940s. Both are still available and widely planted today.
Stone Valley Ranch has tried both. “I was talked into planting the endophyte-free KY32 by the local extension agent. After a few years and dry summers, my pasture was patchy with bare spots. The endophyte-free fescue did not persist well so I reseeded KY31.”
Dr. Jennifer Duringer, Endophyte Testing Lab, Oregon State University says, “It is important to know the level of endophyte infection and ergot alkaloid concentrations in forage. Alkaloid results vary by time of year, within a field and even within a feedbunk. The best way to avert toxicity is to submit samples for testing or purchase from a broker with hay certified within the desired thresholds. The sample submitted should represent the crop at the time of feeding.” Testing in the spring is representative of levels for spring grazing, but if baling in the summer the spring test will not be representative of the baled feed.
Unfortunately for the goat producer, testing has limited value, as there are only established thresholds for cattle, horses, and sheep. Goats, while also a small ruminant, do not always respond the way sheep do. While many believe goats and sheep to be similar in their sensitivity, some propose that goats are more sensitive, but others say less.
Richard Browning Jr. Ph.D., Tennessee State University, concluded in his 2012 study, Tall Fescue Toxicosis in Meat Goats, “Goats have an enhanced ability to rapidly eliminate plant metabolic chemicals from their body (i.e. detoxification) compared to sheep and cattle. There were thoughts that goats may not experience fescue toxicosis. Goats rarely, if ever, exhibited clinical signs recorded in other livestock on EI tall fescue.”
His study did show that fescue can impact growth when compared to other forages: “Fescue toxicosis probably poses a minor threat to goat productivity as long as goats are not forced to graze pure EI tall fescue stands for extended periods.” Most of the reported negative effects of ergot alkaloids in goats are based on observations of producers and not based on tests, targeted research, or controlled studies.
According to Dr. Duringer, “90% of the samples received at the lab are in the summer from hay harvest. The remainder is from producers and veterinarians to rule out alkaloids as the source of symptoms in livestock.”
While fescue is often cited as the source of alkaloid toxicity, other grasses, and especially perennial ryegrass, commonly found in pasture grass mixes, are susceptible to alkaloid producing endophytes, and other classes of plants also produce alkaloids. Many of the symptoms attributed to fescue toxicity can have causes unrelated to alkaloids.
How can toxicity in infected fescue be managed?
Dilution. Many growers will interseed infected fescue with other varieties of grasses to lessen the consumption of fescue. Forage diversity lowers the potential ergot alkaloid intake. Mixed grass hay follows this dilution concept. Little Platte, TNT, and Stone Valley all practice crop dilution with clover. Kellen has found that “As long as you’ve got a reasonable mix of legumes it just ‘works.’”
There is a risk with mixed hay that dominant animals select the preferred stems, leaving the less preferred to the lowest members of the herd. This results in fescue consumption varying within a herd, becoming concentrated in some animals.
Managed grazing. While the alkaloids distribute throughout the plant, the highest concentration is in seeds produced in summer months — which is also when protein levels are lowest. Fescue is ideally grazed and harvested while in the vegetative stage. Troy Lohman says that he clips pastures after rotations to keep the fescue in the growth stage as long as possible. Despite this, his does seek out the seed heads and eat them as a grain. He’s never tested the alkaloid levels.
Stone Valley does practice rotational grazing but, “Years like this year, the fescue went to seed early so every field had gone to seed when I rotated them in. They grazed the heads off first and no one had any problems. They did not scour and maintained their production. I only supplement my goats during the last month of gestation and the first month of lactation so they have to maintain production on forage. I have never had alkaloids tested. I have not had any issues that I know of with fescue.”
Some goat producers avoid grazing fescue in the summer months, but many do not. The height of alkaloid production in summer typically does not coincide with the reproductive aspects impacted by alkaloids, if goats are bred in the fall and kid in the spring.
Kellen says, “I regularly graze when seed heads are present, and the goats tend to hit the seed heads pretty hard, again, with no issue. I have never had them tested for alkaloids, but since these fields were established over 20 years ago with K31 and no other grasses introduced, they are without question heavily endophyte-infected. Our farm is surrounded on three or four sides by infected fescue fields as well. I have never had an issue with fescue and goats, and frankly, my cattle raising neighbors rarely ever do either.”
Selection. Research has found that some animals are genetically more tolerant than others. That has been Troy Lohman’s experience as well. “I’ve selected animals that can thrive on EI fescue, reproduce at high kidding percentages, and raise their kids on strictly a fescue diet. Does that could not maintain condition on fescue were culled.”
Many successful breeders feed their goats EI fescue using these strategies.
Little Platte says, “If you look at our fields, they have this in common: a nice healthy mix of legumes, plentiful access to fresh water, and ample shade areas. These are all things that can help mitigate the usual fescue issues for the most part, without much input from the rancher.”
Karen and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Troy, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. They raise Kikos primarily, but are experimenting with crosses for their new favorite goating experience: pack goats! You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or www.kikogoats.org.
Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.