INDEX

15. TALL FESCUE

Festuca arundinacea

(grass family)

TOXICITY RATING: Moderate to high, depending upon individual circumstance.

ANIMALS AFFECTED: Horses, cattle, possibly other ruminants.

DANGEROUS PARTS OF THE PLANT: Seed head, stem and leaf sheath.

CLASS OF SIGNS: Reproductive problems, "poor doers", lameness, dry gangrene, fever, death.

PLANT DESCRIPTION: This grass (fig. 15), often cultivated in wet pastures for forage or for turf, is a perennial, 3 to 4 foot tall clump grass with medium-wide leaves that are rough-ribbed on top. It has no rootstocks (rhizomes). The heads are open and many-branched. Escaped plants may be found along roadsides and in waste areas, especially in the southern half of the state.

SIGNS: Toxicity is the result of an endophytic ("inside the plant") fungus, Acremonium coenophialum, which is believed to enable the grass to be more hardy and outcompete other grass species. The grass itself is not toxic. The fungus is passed in the seed, and is not transmitted directly from plant to plant.

In horses, pregnant mares are most at risk when eating fescue, since the alkaloids produced by the fungus inhibit prolactin release. Mares will have an increased risk of prolonged gestation, abortion, stillbirth, dystocia (difficult birth), foal mortality, retained or thickened placenta, no milk, and mare death (in foaling, or from a retained placenta).

In cattle, several syndromes have been reported, including fescue toxicosis (summer slump), fescue foot and abdominal fat necrosis. Summer slump causes slower gains, decreased milk production, poor appetite, retention of winter coat, reproductive problems, and elevated temperature. Diarrhea may also be present. Summer slump tends to occur in the warmer months, but has been noted at any time of year, and is the most common of the three syndromes. Fescue foot tends to develop in the late fall and winter, and the extremities (typically tail, ears, and rear feet) undergo necrosis ("death"). Another name for this type of necrosis is "dry gangrene". Fat necrosis develops when areas of fat inside the abdomen die.

Additional note: Fescue can accumulate nitrates under conditions of overfertilization (see the section on oats for more information on nitrate toxicosis).

FIRST AID: There is only supportive and symptomatic treatment once signs appear. A veterinarian can advise on treatment of more severely affected animals. Pregnant mares will be likely to need assistance when foaling and in the post-foaling period. Foals that survive will require supplemental colostrum. Management and prevention are the best means to minimize losses.

SAFETY IN PREPARED FEEDS: The toxin remains active in hay.

PREVENTION: There are several options, depending on the farm situation. Fungicides do not work, so animal and pasture management are the only viable alternatives. Pastures can be tested for the presence and degree of fungal contamination, and reseeding may be required. If reseeding the pasture is not feasible, keeping the pasture short will prevent seed formation. Feeding other forages, such as other warm season grasses or legumes, will be of benefit. Fescue pastures can also be diluted with legume planting (red or white clover). Heavy fertilization may make the problem worse, especially in cattle. If fescue has to be used for mares, at least avoid feeding fescue hay or pasture during the last 30 to 60 days of gestation to minimize problems. Endophyte-free strains of fescue exist, although they do not grow as well as tall fescue with endophyte.