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Tall fescue in Kentucky


By Daniel Carpenter

Wednesday, January 26, 2022 at 6:00 am (Updated: January 26, 6:01 am)

Tall fescue is the most important cool-season forage grass in Kentucky, occupying approximately 5.5 million acres in the state. It is a versatile plant used for animal feed, lawns and turf, and conservation purposes (grass waterways, rights-of-way, etc.). Tall fescue is a deep-rooted, long-lived bunchgrass with short rhizomes (underground stems). It is widely adapted and grows well on the state’s many and varied soil types. Tall fescue produces a good sod that will support livestock during wet and rainy conditions. Like other cool-season grasses, tall fescue produces the majority of its total growth during the first third of the growing season. Growth is slow during July and August, followed by increased production during autumn. Although the major share of fescue’s total production normally occurs during the spring, autumn growth can be significant with adequate moisture and proper applications of nitrogen (N).

Total seasonal production of tall fescue is affected by weather, fertilizer (especially nitrogen), and cutting or grazing management. Yields of 2 to 4 tons of dry matter/acre are common, with the higher yields associated with proper fertilizer applications and harvest management.

Animal performance on tall fescue pastures has historically been inconsistent relative to other cool-season grasses. The cause of this inconsistent performance is attributed to an endophytic (endo — inside, phytic — the plant) fungus, Neotyphodium coenophialum, which is present in more than 85% of Kentucky’s tall fescue pastures and hay fields. Endophyte-free tall fescue has been shown to provide better animal performance than endophyte-infected tall fescue.

Even though the absence of the endophyte improves animal performance, elimination of the endophyte from tall fescue has been associated with decreased seeding vigor and less tolerance to drought and other stressors. However, endophyte-free varieties differ considerably in stress tolerance, and the opportunity exists for selecting more stress-tolerant plants. Replacing endophyte-infected tall fescue pastures with new endophyte-free varieties is an option that requires careful consideration. Even though endophyte-free tall fescue will produce more animal product per acre, it requires more intensive management. Endophyte-infected tall fescue pastures have historically withstood overstocking and continued grazing. However, endophyte-free tall fescue will not withstand close, continued grazing—especially under stressful (drought) conditions—without the risk of stand damage.

With adequate soil moisture, the best time to seed tall fescue is late summer through early fall. Spring seedings can be successful but are more susceptible to summer drought and weed competition.

• To increase the chance of success with spring seeding, plant before mid-April. For pure stands, seed 15 to 20 pounds of seed in a prepared seedbed that has been limed and fertilized according to a soil test. No-till seeding can also be successful if competition is controlled, and the seed is planted on time at consistent depth and rate.

• When seeding in mixtures with legumes, reduce the fescue seeding rate by one-third.

• When seeding in pure stands, apply nitrogen at 50 lb/A.

Many seeding methods, including no-till seeding, can be successful if they result in uniform distribution over the field, placement of seed below the soil surface (1/4- to 1/2-inch deep), and firming of the soil around the seed for close seed-soil contact. Good seedbed preparation and seed placement are especially important for successful establishment.

Tall fescue quality, as measured by forage analysis, has shown a seasonal change in sugar content and digestibility. Protein content in green, leafy tall fescue leaves can be high throughout the season Digestibility and sugars are highest in fall, intermediate during spring, and lowest in summer. Palatability follows essentially the same trend as digestibility and sugar content (i.e., most palatable in fall, least in summer, and intermediate in spring).

Although endophyte infection in tall fescue has caused it to be viewed as a low-quality forage, laboratory quality factors have shown good quality. Its digestibility compares favorably with orchardgrass. When the endophyte is eliminated, tall fescue is a high-quality forage in the laboratory and in the field.

If you have any questions about tall fescue or other forages, please contact the LaRue County Extension Office at 270-358-3401 or [email protected].