ohn D. Byrd, Mississippi State University, Bugwood.org
The forage seed development and distribution system across America should be given a "tip of the hat" for the significant enhancement of all forage species and varieties in the last 10 years. Across the United States in areas where forages are grown or used in livestock and horse production new species and varieties of forages have significantly changed forage agriculture, for the better. Consider the brown mid rib (bmr) gene and it's discovery that improved sorghum sudangrass digestibility or perennial and annual ryegrasses, or endophyte-free Tall Fescue, to name a few improvements.
A new species of grass that forage producers may soon hear more about is called Meadow Fescue. Seed industry professionals have screened hundreds if not thousands of populations of this grass to select for improved types. Already named varieties of meadow fescues are being marketed. Recently a publication entitled "Forage Fescues in the Northern USA" was published in Wisconsin.
The publication notes that Meadow Fescues can trace their history to northern Europe and the mountainous regions of southern Europe. During the early 1800's settlers brought seed with them as they homesteaded across the mid-West and Canada. Sometime around the 1940's tall fescue was considered to be the best fescue type plant due to its superior yields and disease resistance. By the mid 1950's, meadow fescue was forgotten.
As the interest in grazing increased during the 1980's research into alternative forage species rebounded. Although not as high yielding as tall fescue varieties the higher palatability of meadow fescue was noted. Soon a meadow fescue breeding program was initiated by the University of Wisconsin and USDA-ARS. Plant populations across the mid-west were sampled and screened and cross bred to select for desirable forage characteristics.
There are actually two types of fescues: fine and broad-leaved. The fine fescues include sheep, hard, Chewing's and red fescue. The broad-leaf types include tall and meadow fescues. Both species tall and meadow fescues contain a naturally occurring fungus that lives inside the plant. This fungus is called an endophyte, "endo" meaning inside and "phyte" meaning plant.
Endophyte fungus cannot survive outside of the host plant. The fungus develops in the host plant and can be found in high levels inside developing seeds. These plants germinate and the endophyte grows along with the seedling. The fungus produces compunds called alkaloids. These alkaloids help to protect the plant from drought and heat, especially in extremely warm climates.
Fortunately the endophytes are different in tall fescue and meadow fescue. In tall fescues the endophyte produces 2 types of alkaloids. One alkaloid is good: loline. This is the alkaloid that protects the plant from drought and heat. The second alkaloid is ergovaline. This compound affects blood circulation and nervous systems of ruminants. Fortunately Meadow fescue endophytes only produce loline and therefore do not have the negative forage trait of tall fescues.
Forage selection and research has provided forage producers and feeders with many outstanding alternatives. In South Central PA the seed industry has been able to introduce adapted varieties of many forage grasses. During winter meetings and trade shows this year talk to your associates about new forage opportunities that may include meadow fescues.