Don't use fescue for wildlife habitat

Don't do fescue- if managing your land for wildlife by Ruth Ann Gentry, AGFC Private Lands Biologist

FORT SMITH (AGFC) – Landowners desiring to manage their land for wildlife need to be aware that tall fescue provides no food or cover for species like deer, quail, rabbit, turkey and many other wildlife species and is considered unusable space for wildlife.

The number one problem on many farms today for ground-feeding and ground-nesting wildlife species is the predominance of tall fescue. Simply put, fescue is a poor choice for wildlife habitat. Tall fescue is an extremely competitive plant, which tends to dominate fields where it has been established. Tall fescue is a sod-forming grass with a thick, matted growth form which is extremely limiting to the movement of wildlife such as quail and rabbits. This thick growth often eliminates all other species of plants from growing which creates nearly monocultural fields of fescue. These pure stands of fescue lack the necessary diversity to provide the habitat components that are essential for supporting a variety of wildlife species.

Nearly all stands of tall fescue are infected with a fungus that lives in a mutually beneficial relationship with the fescue. The fungus produces chemicals in the plant, which cause fescue to have toxic qualities. Cattle consuming tall fescue (either by grazing or as hay) often experience poor weight gains, reduced conception rates, intolerance to heat, failure to shed the winter hair coat, elevated body temperature, and loss of hooves. Problems with horses are more severe, often leading to abortion, prolonged gestation, difficulty with birthing, thick placenta, foal deaths, retained placentas, reduced (or no) milk production and death of mares during foaling. Cottontail rabbits had lower weights and smaller litters in tall fescue habitats. As a forage, tall fescue is least preferred by white-tailed deer among cool-season forages. Undoubtedly, many of the toxic effects from tall fescue on wildlife that consume the seed or foliage are unknown.

Known problems of tall fescue for wildlife are associated more with the structure created by the growth habit. Dense growth and deep thatch near ground level make travel and foraging difficult for many wildlife species, especially ground birds. The dense growth structure and thatch layer not only prevent birds from picking seed up off the ground, but also prevent wildlife beneficial seeds in the seedbank from germinating. Thus, vegetative diversity and weed seed availability are drastically reduced.

To greatly improve farms for game and other wildlife populations, as well as increase the productivity and efficiency of livestock forage systems, it is recommended that efforts be made to eradicate at least a portion of the fescue in fields and replace it with other wildlife friendly cool season grass/legume and/or native warm season grass/forb mixtures. Incorporating native warm season grasses and forbs into pastures and hayfields can provide drought tolerant forage when the next extreme drought hits the state as was experienced during the summer of 2012. Native warm season grasses have deep root systems which allow them to live through even the worst droughts.

Ranchers with native warm season grasses in their forage system were among the only producers who did not lose their entire forage base this summer in areas severely impacted by the drought. Improving hay and pasture field systems with native warm season grasses and forbs will make farms more compatible with wildlife while providing fresh, succulent, and dependable pasture throughout the growing season.

For more information on eradicating tall fescue and improving your farm for wildlife, contact a Commission private lands biologist at: Fort Smith, 877-478-1043; Harrison, 870-741-8600 extension 114; Hope, 877-777-5580; Calico Rock, 877-297-4331; Little Rock, 877-470-3650; Brinkley, 877-734-4581; Jonesboro, 877-972-5438 and Monticello, 877-367-3559.