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Archive for Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Grass variety proves hazardous to wildlife

June 27, 2006

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— The grass variety once considered a solution for ranchers looking to build Missouri's cattle industry is now being described much differently - as a nuisance.

Tall fescue - the hardy, dense and easily grown grass that is common in parks, lawns and in many grazing fields in Missouri and Kansas - is earning a reputation as an environmental terror and livestock health hazard.

Its strands prevent game birds from moving through it, and its tendency to crowd out native grasses and wildflowers depletes food and shelter. Some varieties also create a fungus that can be hazardous to grazing animals, including cattle and horses.

"In the eastern United States, fescue is the No. 1 threat to wildlife," said Steve Clubine, grasslands biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"Inch by inch, foot by foot, we keep losing habitat."

The number of prairie chickens, an endangered species in Missouri, has rapidly declined, and quail and songbirds such as the meadowlark are dying out. Grassland bird populations in eastern Kansas have also dropped.

"I don't think there's any doubt (that) in eastern Kansas where fescue has been dominant, our quail population went in the tank," said Jim Pittman of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

Fescue became popular among ranchers after World War II because it was inexpensive and easily grown. But over time, producers also have noticed problems in grazing animals.

The alkaloids found in fescue's fungus can cause cattle and sheep to go lame because of circulation issues. Animals also can lose weight when the fungus is at its peak in the summer months, and pregnant horses have been known to abort foals after feeding on fescue.

Craig Roberts, a forage specialist for the University of Missouri, said those problems can cost the nation's farmers more than $1 billion in revenue annually. "I'm surprised at how many people don't know about it," he said.

Scientists are at work developing new varieties that are safer for cattle, said agronomist Gary Kilgore of Kansas State University. In some places, farmers also are converting acreage to prairie flowers and grasses.

Bob and Karli Foreman, who operate a 160-acre hobby farm near Smithville, are spending $2,000 this summer to replant a portion of their land. Most of that was covered by a $1,350 grant from the Quail Unlimited conservation group.

But despite its problems, livestock producers continue to plant fescue because it stays green all year and provides winter grazing, said Ron Cowan of Missouri Southern Seed in Rolla.

Cowan said he sold 2 million pounds of fescue seed last year, though he acknowledged most was planted for turf. Few farmers plant the fungus-carrying variety, and those who do mix it with other grasses and legumes.

"The wildlife problem is basically just quail," Cowan said, noting that concerns about wildlife are secondary to the lucrative livestock industry.

"I'm taking the cattle and the farmer over the quail," he said.

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