Category Archives: Fescue Control with row cropping

Thoughts on Lease Cropping vs Grazing Your Own Stock

There is something wrong with me that leasing and renting properties never seems to work out.  Even when there is a contract with goals and procedures laid out life, weather, resources change and stuff just doesn’t happen as plan.  But, by and large, my disappointments seem rooted in being too accommodating.  Or maybe it’s a lack of communication though for sure i don’t hold back giving my opinions and expectations – to a fault, i’m afraid.  Nevertheless, things never turn out quite the way i want.

Currently, i’ve leased 120 acres for organic farming for 4 years.  My goals are to eliminate or drastically reduce endophyte infected toxic fescue and build organic matter through the use of cover crops.  I knew going in that my renter has no intention of ever letting cattle graze the cover crops, so i can’t be unhappy about that, yet, the more i see happening and the more i read, it is clear that my soil is lacking due to the removal of animal impact.

Our contract was spelled out and ends after next year’s crop (it was a 4 year deal).  I had hoped that it would be successful and that then we could move forward with working another piece and removing more fescue, but it doesn’t work.

Here are some bullet points i have:

  1. animal impact is essential to making cover crop and soil improvements financially viable as well as building organic matter and tilth.
  2. in a lease situation, the owner doesn’t have the power to make certain that soil is covered.  This past year, the soil did not have anything in it from November until June (except volunteer ragweed growing in the spring) and now that it’s been worked and readied for more soybeans, it still lays open to the sun, wind, and rain with prevented planting.   Cover crops simply don’t get planted even though that was the written goal.
  3. I knew going in that i was incurring some opportunity costs by leasing vs grazing my own cattle on the property.  I weighed that against the possibility of getting better control of the toxic fescue and giving my friend an opportunity to expand his organic cropping endeavor.  Bottom line, from a purely income/expense perspective, I make more money with grazing vs leasing the property for row cropping.
  4. Lessees do not care for your property as you would.  Trees and brush are growing rapidly in fence rows and untilled portions of the land.  I still do the labor of keeping them under control and since the crop is organic, i must follow the rules of how to manage.  In other words, i can’t chemically treat the plants or stumps if they are within 20 feet of the crop – So they grow and grow.  It will be 7 years from the time i cut brush and treated and the time i regain control of my property.  A lot gets big and away.  More work at the end of the organic regime.
  5. This experiment was worth the pain since i now know that it simply is not the way i would ever do this project again.  I’m especially glad I went with the organic approach despite the stumbling blocks since a conventional farmer would have slathered the soil with toxic chemicals year after year and farmed fence row to fence row and through the waterways.  My friend is careful to leave ample grass strips in waterways and leaves 20 foot buffer from the fences (organic rules).  At the same time this leaves at least 20 acres that is not be utilized for any purpose since he won’t allow grazing at any time.
  6. The weather immediately turned into drought mode for these 3 years and I’m having to downsize my cow herd drastically to accommodate since my acres for grazing is reduced.  Incredibly, this has turned to be a blessing since i’ve culled deeply (after this fall, it will have been about 40%!), no cow gets a second chance and i’ve sold a lot of older cows that i would typically try to ‘get one more calf out of.’  This year’s calf crop is the best I’ve ever had.  Now if only market prices weren’t in the tank.
  7. If i had my own farming equipment and the desire to run it, i think there is opportunity to improve the soil, increase tilth and organic matter, create better wildlife habitat, create another employment opportunity, and increase profit with combined cropping/grazing especially if a value added food crop market is developed.  We actually do have all the equipment, but not the time or energy to develop the plan, work the plan, and market.  The equipment mostly sits in the barn and serves as depreciating assets against income.
  8. At the end of the day,  we do the best we can and then we die.  The hope is to leave a legacy of some sort – be it a physical asset, money, or wisdom.  A friend recently sold his rather large farm he had promoted, taught, enjoyed, and improved with holistic, organic practices for all his life yet it sold to conventional farmers who are likely to plough it all under and row crop until it is degraded. That is sad, but life goes on.

At the end of the day, I’m looking forward to bringing the 120 acres back under my management even though i will only graze it once i get it seeded back down.  With managed grazing and some brush/tree removal, the pasture will be back hopefully making money for me soon.

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You can see the worked field which has now been bare soil since harvest of soybeans last November.  That means 10 months and counting of open, unprotected soil.  

Effects of E+ Fescue

Symptoms of ergovaline poisoning in livestock are:

  1.  decreased milk production (as much as 45% reduction!)
  2. poor body condition
  3. general poor health
  4. decreased weight gain (stocker gains can be halved!)
  5. delayed hair coat shedding
  6. low conception rate
  7. low birth weight
  8. circulatory problems (ie: ear tips freezing, sloughing off of tail switch, even so far as to slough off hooves)
  9. lameness
  10. loss of appetite
  11. abortions
  12. poor circulation also leads to inability to dissipate body heat (especially troublesome in the heat and humidity of summer) (this is the main problem which leads to the above symptoms)

The cause is that the fungus is a vaso constricting substance called ergovaline.  A good explanation comes from Endophyte Service Laboratory, College of Agriculture Sciences
Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331 USA.

The toxin ergovaline is a vaso-constrictor, it constricts the blood vessels and reduces blood circulation to the outer parts of the animal’s body. Animals that have consumed a toxic dose of ergovaline will have difficulty regulating body temperature. The constriction of blood flow also can cause “fescue foot”. Fescue foot is characterized by gangrene or tissue death in the legs, ears and tails.

Recent research done by Matt Booher, Crop and Soil Agent at Virginia Coopoerative Extension and John Benner indicates that despite our best efforts, endophyte infected fescue at all stages of growth causes some level of poisoning to livestock.

Seems mind boggling that we farmers and ranchers continue to allow this non-native plant to be grazed by our stock, doesn’t it!?  Tannachton Farm is on a mission to remove it.  It will be a fight since the grass is allelopathic and persistent!

 

Cheers!

tauna

Getting Ready

One would think you could just pull in and start with tillage for planting crops as part of my fescue elimination project.  Alas, that isn’t true in my case.  Since i had subdivided the 120 acres into 6 paddocks with 2 wire hi-tensile electric wire, all this had to be wound up and stowed for replacement after 4 years as per my plan.  Old fence posts and wired had to be pulled up and stacked for burning when time allows and entrance gateway had to be widened.

 

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There’s been a 16 foot gate here for longer than i’ve been alive, although this is a new gate i had installed about 5 years ago.  But, 16 foot opening is far too narrow to pull in comfortably with big equipment, although you’d be amazed at what a skilled driver can get through!
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So, this is the new look – set two new corner posts and hung two 16 foot gates.  Very professionally done by Jim Fitzgerald.
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HUGE thank you and shout out to North Central Missouri Electric Coop for quickly removing, not only the lines from the transformer to the meter pole, but also my farm lines from the meter pole to windmill pump. About an 1/4 of a mile’s worth. While i did the ground work of chaining the pole to the front end loading, Dallas pulled the posts. Afterward, i dragged them to a burn pile with my Gator.
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The electric company removed the wires from two tall poles which were on my property.  Our little tractor had to shove a bit on the pole, then really hunker down to get these poles pulled up.  As you can see, they are buried quite deep.  Instead of burning these poles, they were cut to length and used as the corner posts for my new gateways!
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Old fence left over from who knows when still across the pasture with wire buried and tangled.  What a mess but at last we prevailed.
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Here are half the posts from that fence.  These will all burnt in a pile.  Would make good firewood if they weren’t full of staples and wires.  The corner posts were too heavy for me to lift into the bucket, so we just used the tractor to pull them ’round to the burn pile – it wasn’t far.
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An old home built load out chute we drug up out of the middle of the pasture.  
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With most posts pulled up, Dallas is building me a low water crossing while I pull the remaining posts to burn pile and roll up another half a quarter mile of hi-tensile wire.  Weather is perfect for working but I’m about out of steam!

 

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I bet you were wondering how I can roll up 12 gauge hi-tensile electric wire.  The key is this spinning jenny from Powerflex Fence.  Don’t do this without a spinning jenny  Notice the rolls of wire I stored nearby; ready to roll back out after the 4 year renovation.  All told, I rolled up a bit more than 2 miles of hi-tensile wire and pulled some 140 fiberglass posts.  Many were 1 inch and were easily pulled by hand.  I hauled them all home and have them stored on a pallet in the barn.
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Here you can see the old hand strung electric line from way up at the barn down to the electrified pump.  It used to be run only with the windmill, but there is not enough reliable wind to make that very viable.  Anyway, those were the posts Dallas and I pulled up.

Dallas and I did this in a couple days of remarkable weather in November!

Cheers

tauna

E+ Fescue History

Not even going to bore you with a long history of a specific grass – I don’t even want to read about it.  Given the little dab of history i’ve uncovered that was already known about toxic endophyte infested tall fescue, E+ tall fescue being sold as a wonder grass in the early 1940’s must surely have been one of the most duplicitous marketing schemes ever played on the American farmer.  And we fell hook, line, and sinker for it.  Now planted and still being planted on at least 35-40 million acres across the midwest and southwest United States.

Tall fescue has good attributes – it surely does.  You can overgraze it, trample it, burn it, freeze it, mow it, dilute it (with other forages), plough it and it will come back year after year even stronger yet.  But, as i have shared earlier, that persistence is purchased with losses in the health of livestock and decimated wildlife forage and habitat.

As evidenced by the following documents, I suspect we could keep digging backwards in time and discover that at least one cultivar of Tall Fescue has been wreaking havoc for many, many years.

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These two pages are scanned from “Forages,” a 1973 college level curriculum.   Note that the New Zealand worker reported his observations in 1913. (on page 300)
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A page scanned from “The Clifton Park System of Farming and Laying Down Land to Grass” by Robert Elliot.  Quoted here as seeing in a book already written as to the New Zealand species of tall fescue containing ergot.  (we now know that it is ergovaline produced by the fungus endophyte which is hosted by the fescue plant)

Fescue Toxicity

Boy, howdy, now there’s an exciting title and one to really pull in a reader eager to learn about such a thing.  Well, not, of course, but to cattle farmers and ranchers across a great portion of the United States, it’s a reality that sucks an estimated $1 billion out of our collective pockets EACH year!

in 1943 Kentucky 31 variety of fescue was commercially introduced and sold, it seemed at first a godsend to sod forming, persistence, deep rootedness (soil conservation), and production for cattle and other livestock producers.  In the late 1970’s, scientists at last identified that fescue hosts a fungus that can produce toxic compounds called ergovaline.  However, it is important to note, that reports of  toxic effects of grazing infected fescue have been around at least since the early 1900’s.  Why didn’t the light bulb go off that there is a problem that needs addressing BEFORE scattering it all over the US!?  The only answer that seems reasonable is that establishment of the grass is cheap and easy and the resultant health concerns in stock are a silent drain.

Whatever the case may be, I’m now on a mission to eradicate to a degree as much as possible toxic fescue from my pastures.  In so doing, cattle health and numbers should increase, calf gains and cow milking ability should increase as well as reproduction improvements.  Additionally, soil health and tilth should improve, thereby increasing its moisture capturing and holding capacity (resulting in less runoff and erosion).  Lastly, but certainly not least, ridding the pastures of tall fescue will greatly improve wildlife habitat – especially ground nesting species such as quail.

The fruits of this project will likely be for the next generation and i ask myself if it is really worth the expense and effort to make a bold move in such uncertain times of low cattle prices.  Time will tell, i guess.

I think I’ll put these entries in a separate category so my reports and progress can be easily accessed.  I’m no Pioneer Woman like Dee,  (ya gotta admire the outreach she has done with her whit and way with words),  but if you have an interest in organic, no chemical, minimal tillage farming, pasture renovation, cattle rearing for producing clean healthy food while improving (regenerating is the popular term) our environment, come alongside and join the conversation.  I will enjoy any questions.

Cheers!

tauna

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This is a nice photo of my cows, but what you don’t see is that a good portion of what they are grazing is toxic endophyte infected fescue.  In other words, with every bite they are being poisoned.  It’s time to see if the dollars and cents to renovate make sense to change this condition.