Named for its predominant grass, the “fescue belt” stretches for 1,000 miles across the southeastern U.S., from Virginia and the Carolinas in the east, to Kansas and Oklahoma in the west. Tall fescue feeds cattle on thousands of farms and ranches in this stretch, according but cattle and wildlife can suffer from tall fescue toxicity.
A new study conducted at Virginia Tech aims to address problems associated with the predominance of toxic tall fescue on many southeastern farms. Led by Dr. Megan O’Rourke, the research team will plant native prairie grasses and wildflowers at research stations in Virginia and Tennessee and at six on-farm sites in Northern Virginia.
“We’re trying to transform the landscape to support both cattle and pollinators by planting more native wildflowers on farmland,” according to O’Rourke.
The $1.8 million project is funded half by a federal grant and half by contributions of time, land, cattle and money by Virginia Tech, the University of Tennessee, farmers working with the researchers, and a nonprofit called Virginia Working Landscapes. The team will test 20 different wildflowers native to Virginia and Tennessee and will measure which ones attract the most bees and, when planted alongside native grasses, produce the healthiest cattle.
Another faculty member working on the study is Dr. Ben Tracy, a Virginia Tech professor of grassland ecology who has been studying native prairie grasses and the effects of tall fescue on cattle for the past 15 years or so, the release says.
“The main health problem that fescue causes for cattle, fescue toxicosis, is not fatal, but it costs the cattle industry millions of dollars a year,” Tracy says. Affected cattle have trouble regulating their body temperatures in hot weather and they don’t eat as much and gain as much weight as healthy cattle. “Hopefully, adding native grasses and wildflowers to pastures will reduce fescue toxicosis.”
If this study succeeds, adding native wildflowers to pastures in the fescue belt will become a new conservation practice that USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service will cost share. ~ Katie James, Bovine Vet Online