Linda Geist

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Grow now and graze later to get the most out of tall fescue pastures.

Winter stockpiling cool-season grasses carries cow-calf operations through the winter, the costliest time to feed cattle, says University of Missouri Extension state forage specialist Craig Roberts.

“If we don’t stockpile, we’ll find ourselves feeding hay or other concentrates just to get through the winter,” says Roberts.

Fescue’s long growing season and persistence make it Missouri’s No. 1 forage. Its waxy leaves make it the cool-season grass best adapted for stockpiling for use in fall and winter in Missouri. The waxy surface keeps it from getting soggy over winter.

Producers should remove cows from fescue pastures before applying nitrogen, the nutrient that most increases yield in grasses. August-applied nitrogen helps grasses grow until after frost, when grazing can resume.

Timing nitrogen application before fall rains is vital for growth, Roberts says. In northern Missouri, this is generally the first week of August. For the rest of the state, it is during the second week of August.

Application amounts vary

The amount of nitrogen to apply to Kentucky 31 and novel-endophyte fescues differs, says Roberts. Too much nitrogen on K-31 increases toxins, hurting herd health and profitability.

“We want to do everything we can to reduce those toxins and make money on these animals,” he says.

Toxins in fescue spike in spring and fall in Missouri, with the fall peak occurring around early November.

Fall toxins harder to control

There are fewer ways to manage toxins in fall than spring. These controls must be carried out on multiple levels, and all increase input costs. A single practice can offer partial relief but will not be enough to prevent health problems in animals.

“There is no such thing as THE solution for Kentucky 31 fescue,” Roberts says. Nitrogen application is just one, but a critical one.

Roberts says the best way to reduce toxins in fescue is to renovate pastures from K-31 to novel-endophyte fescues. For information, visit the Alliance for Grassland Renewal website at

“Stockpiling is where novel-endophyte fescues show off,” Roberts says. Novel-endophyte stockpiles are highly nutritional, with high protein and energy content because they have no stems or seed heads.

Guidelines for nitrogen fertilizer amounts

Roberts recommends the following when applying nitrogen:

• Toxins vary year to year, so nitrogen rates may vary.

• Use 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre or less on toxic fescue varieties such as Kentucky 31. Rates higher than this increase toxins.

• Use 60-100 pounds per acre for novel-endophyte fescues.

For more information, visit your county MU Extension center or see the MU Extension Integrated Pest Management video “Fall Forage Stockpiling” at