Benefits of Tall Fescue as Equine Forage

Though tall fescue should be avoided on certain horse operations, especially those catering specifically to breeding and foaling, its widespread use on other horse farms speaks volumes for its value as a forage. Tall fescue covers over 35 million acres (15 million hectares) of the eastern United States alone, and an estimated 700,000 horses graze or are fed tall fescue without incident.

Because of the well-documented problems with broodmares, some horsemen refuse to seed pastures with tall fescue and persist in eradicating it from established pastures, even on farms without broodmares. Before banishing tall fescue from your operation, consider the following facts:

  • Tall fescue does not cause problems, even in pregnant mares. Only crops infected with a fungus, called an endophyte, harm pregnant mares. “Endophyte-infected tall fescue, especially the seeds, contains specific chemicals called ergot alkaloids produced by the fungus,†explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a nutritionist with Kentucky Equine Research. “While harmful to pregnant mares late in gestation, those chemicals actually help tall fescue, making the plant hardier and unpalatable to insects.â€
  • Tall fescue was originally introduced to North America from Europe in the 1800s because of its hardiness. Though it is considered a cool-season grass, it thrives in extreme conditions, including cold, heat, drought, and shade.
  • Fields of tall fescue are easily established, tolerate close grazing, handle heavy horse traffic, and resist weeds, insects, and disease. Tall fescue provides plentiful yields and is low maintenance, flourishing under a range of management systems.
  • Not all fescue is infected with endophyte. Fescue can be tested for infection, and multiple strategies can be put in place to choke out or dilute infected fescue. Additionally, fungus-free tall fescue can be planted. Because the endophyte spreads through seeds, as long as no infected fescue is introduced, a field of fungus-free fescue theoretically should remain so.

“Be aware, however, that endophyte-free fescue is not as persistent or hardy as the infected varieties. Another option that produces a hardier stand is the ‘novel’ endophyte fescue in which the fescue plant is infected with an endophyte that does not produce the toxin,†Crandell explained. “Despite the benefits of tall fescue, the only way to avoid fescue toxicosis is to completely avoid this forage late in gestation. For alternate feeding strategies, contact a Kentucky Equine Research nutrition advisor.â€