Producers can reduce the risk of the disease by reducing fall fescue access

Fescue foot is a health issue in cattle that can be common this time of year. This painful condition is something producers will want to watch out for and take management steps if it is discovered in their herd.

Fescue foot, Eldon Cole, livestock field specialist with the University of Extension, explained, results from cattle grazing fescue containing toxins like ergovaline, which causes vasoconstriction at the extremities. 

“The reduced blood flow combined with the cold weather is a recipe for fescue foot,” he said. 

Reduced blood flow typically affects the rear hooves and sometimes the cow’s tail switch. This will cause lameness and possibly result in the loss of hooves or tail switch. In advanced cases where the animal looses or is in the process of loosing the hoof (a sign of this can be a break in the skin just above the hoof), the animal will most likely not be salvageable. If the only loss is the tail switch, the animal can likely recover, but may need more assistance in the summer months when it comes to fly control, such as a spray on-substance. 

While fescue foot can have tragic consequences, it won’t strike every animal in the herd. 

“Seldom are more than 20 to 25 percent affected,” Cole said. 

Signs of fescue foot include reluctance to move, or moving gingerly instead of with purpose, kicking or stretching a rear leg, licking an affected lower leg and swelling in the area just above the hoof. Cole noted the best time to observe the herd for potential fescue foot signs is first thing in the morning as the cattle begin to get up and around for the day. 

Cattle are typically the only livestock that can come down with true fescue foot, but Cole noted the ergovaline toxin in fescue can cause negative effects in horses, especially broodmares. 

Fescue foot is caused by grazing “pure” stands of fescue during the winter, especially old Kentucky 31 stands. 

“Another likely contributor to fescue foot is abundant fall growth in a stockpiling system,” Cole explained. “Since stockpiling was minimal in 2020, it may reduce the risk of fescue foot on many farms.” 

Producers can reduce the risk of fescue foot by grazing mixed forage stands or finding other ways to dilute the cattle’s diet.

Immediate action is required if producers suspect fescue foot. 

“Unfortunately, antibiotics won’t cure or prevent fescue foot. Removing the lame animals from the pasture where the lameness began is the first thing to do,” Cole advised. “Put them in a small pasture or lot where you can observe them easily. Feed them a concentrate feed and even give them some alfalfa or clover hay along with grass hay.”

For future prevention, on top of keeping the herd’s diet varied instead of purely grazing fescue, evaluate each animal carefully for resistance to fescue foot.

“Research evidence supports that animal genetic differences to the toxins do exist so pay close attention to animal performance on your Kentucky 31 fescue pastures,” Cole said.


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