Saturday, 23 June 2012

Fescue: Basics

Considering that my PhD research is all about fescue, I'm likely to mention it a fair bit here.  So, I thought I'd make sure we were all on the same page.

Step one:  Raise your hand if you know what fescue is.  

No cheating!

For some of you, this was a silly question. But, I recently gave a presentation about fescue to a local agriculture magnet high school.  I asked who knew what fescue was and for less than 10% of the students raised their hands.  I was reminded then and there that not everyone has the base of knowledge I do.

From Texas A&M's website
So, fescue is a grass.  It's a cool season bunch-grass to be precise.  That meas that it grows best in spring and fall (cool season) and grown in clumps, as opposed to spreading out like a sod-grass.

There are about  300 species in the fescue genus.  I am particularly interested in Festuca arundinacea.  That's tall fescue.  Tall fescue came to the US from Europe in the 1800s.  But it wasn't widely planted until the 1940s after the KY-31 variety was developed right here at the University of Kentucky.

KY-31 was developed and released as a drought tolerant, trample resistant grass that would grow where other cool season grasses failed.  During the dust bowl KY-31 and other tall fescue were widely planted to help with land reclamation.  It makes a great pasture or lawn grass and is still one of the most popular vareties in the south-east US.

The interesting thing about tall fescue is that is has a symbiotic relationship with a fungal endophyte called Neotyphodium coenophialum.  This little guy produced alkaloids that give the plant drought and insect resistance.  Great right?

For the plant, yes.  Unfortunately, when these alkaloids are consumed by animals they cause a wide range of physiological problems.  Ranging from reduced conception rates, dystocia (difficulty giving birth), and aglactia (reduced milk production) to elevated body temperature and low growth rates.  Cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and even some wildlife such as deer have been reported to show these problems and more.

Fabulous image from the University of Tennessee.  

The steer in the front is the same age as the one in the back, but he's been on a fescue pasture.

That covers the basics of fescue.  My research deals with understanding exactly how the alkaloids are causing problems in the animal.  I'm happy to talk fescue all day any day, so please email or ask here if you have any questions.

No comments:

Post a Comment