Managing Fescue

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

Whether your interests tend toward quail or cattle likely determines what you think about fescue. That's because the traits that make this grass good for our rural economy don't always make it good for wildlife.

Biologists say fescue ruins wildlife habitat and strangles native plant communities, and they're right.

Cattlemen claim that fescue saves soil, pays for farms and sends kids to college, and they're right.

Most of our grasslands will likely continue to produce fescue to support a livestock industry that keeps us affordably well-fed, but many acres can also be managed to provide a better living for the people, livestock and wildlife that share Missouri's countryside.

As a biologist, I know a fescue field means less small game and fewer wildflowers, so I've spent a lot of time killing it on public land and helping interested landowners do the same. When I farmed, however, I spent my share of late June afternoons bouncing an old combine across rough pastures, thankful for the income generated by the sale of fescue seed.

Good conservation lies somewhere between the economic interests of one side and the natural resource interests of the other. The key is finding better ways to manage fescue where it is needed, and controlling it where it isn't needed.

Tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea), usually just called fescue, is a long-lived, perennial grass with growing seasons in spring and fall, and an intervening dormant period that varies with the severity of summer.

Fescue was brought to America from Europe in the late 1800s and now dominates 40 million grassland acres nationwide. Most of the fescue in Missouri is Kentucky 31, a variety developed from seed collected in a Kentucky pasture in 1931. You have probably sown Kentucky 31 on your lawn. Unless you've taken active steps to favor other species, it is likely the dominant grass on your land.

Fescue grows well on a wide variety of soils and persists despite low pH and poor fertility. Individual plants grow as a bunch grass, but aggressive self-seeding quickly results in dense sod. These traits make fescue an attractive choice for lawn, pasture or erosion control plantings, but fescue is especially prized by landowners for its ability to bounce-back after drought or heavy grazing.

Fescue owes much of its resilience to a microscopic fungus, called an endophyte, which lives within its tissues. The endophyte produces, or causes the plant to produce, alkaloid toxins that help fescue wage chemical warfare against grazing

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