Causes, treatment and prevention of the disease

Tall fescue is a commonly utilized forage in the Ozarks. While fescue has plenty of pros in its favor, it also brings a few cow-health related cons to the table, such as fescue foot.

What is it? “Fescue foot refers to a disease condition of the hooves of cattle that is associated with consuming endophyte infected tall fescue,” Dr. Craig Payne, veterinarian with the University of Missouri Extension, explained. “Cattle may appear lame or in severe cases, a hoof, or hooves, may become gangrenous and eventually sloughed.”

What causes it? The condition is caused by the culprit that is responsible for more than one fescue-related livestock health issue – endophytes.

“Endophyte in tall fescue produces a class of compounds known as ergot alkaloids,” Payne explained. “At sufficient levels of consumption, these compounds cause vasoconstriction and damage to capillary endothelium, which leads to decreased blood flow in the distal extremities. The rear hooves, particularly the right, are most susceptible, and cold environmental temperatures contribute to the severity of lesions.”

Cold temperatures contribute to the manifestation of the condition, as does fertilizer.

“Spreading extra nitrogen fertilizer in the fall to boost grass growth also boosts production of toxins,” according to Craig Roberts, agronomy field specialist with the University of Missouri Extension.

Treatment options. Fescue foot is an unfortunate condition, as there’s not much that can be done.

“Treatment options are limited and primarily consist of removing the animal from the source of alkaloids, or vice versa, and providing supportive care as recommended by your veterinarian, antibiotics and/or anti-inflammatories for example. Severe cases may warrant euthanasia,” Payne explained.

How can it be prevented? Prevention is the best course of action when it comes to fescue foot. Payne advised prevention consists of limiting exposure to potential sources of alkaloids. If endophyte tall fescue is the source of the problem, it may be necessary to renovate your pastures, inter-seed legumes, or adopt some other management practice to reduce exposure.

Other preventive measures include not allowing cattle to graze fall-grown fescue too short (recent research shows most toxins in the fall stay in the lower two inches of the fescue plant), feeding hay during fall cold snaps, leaving stockpiled fescue alone until about January (the toxins will have decreased by this time), and implementing management intensive grazing practices.

“With rotational grazing, cows are moved before they grub grass into the ground,” Roberts said.

Producers are encouraged to reach out to their local extension offices regarding fescue foot issues.


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