Virginia Tech Testing Bee-Friendly Forage Material

A new study is examining how to increase bee-friendly plants while meeting the needs of cattle along the “fescue belt” that stretches from the Carolinas to Kansas. ( Virginia Tech )

Named for its predominant grass, the “fescue belt” stretches for 1,000 miles across the southeastern U.S., from Virginia and the Carolinas in the east, to Kansas and Oklahoma in the west. Tall fescue feeds cattle on thousands of farms and ranches in this stretch, according to a release from Virginia Tech.

In the mid-20th century, tall fescue was planted widely in the southeast because it’s hardy and resistant to drought and cold, which makes it good for feeding cattle in the winter and spring. But it can harbor a fungus that can cause health issues for cattle, especially in the summer when it’s hot. According to the release, it’s an invasive species that’s actually native to Europe, and it can crowd out wildflowers and other native plants. This could be contributing to the decline of bees and other pollinating inset populations.

A new study conducted at Virginia Tech aims to address both of these problems. Led by Megan O’Rourke, an associate professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the research team will plant native prairie grasses and wildflowers at research stations in Virginia and Tennessee and at six on-farm sites in Northern Virginia, including on the Thomas Jefferson Foundation farmland, the release says.

“We’re trying to transform the landscape to support both cattle and pollinators by planting more native wildflowers on farmland,” O’Rourke says in the release.

The $1.8 million project is funded half by a federal grant and half by contributions of time, land, cattle and money by Virginia Tech, the University of Tennessee, farmers working with the researchers, and a nonprofit called Virginia Working Landscapes, the release notes. The team will test 20 different wildflowers native to Virginia and Tennessee and will measure which ones attract the most bees and, when planted alongside native grasses, produce the healthiest cattle. The grant was awarded in December, and the work is getting underway in early 2020.

Another faculty member working on the study is Ben Tracy, a Virginia Tech professor of grassland ecology and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist who has been studying native prairie grasses and the effects of tall fescue on cattle for the past 15 years or so, the release says. 

“The main health problem that fescue causes for cattle, fescue toxicosis, is not fatal, but it probably costs the cattle industry millions of dollars a year,” Tracy says in the release. Affected cattle have trouble regulating their body temperatures in hot weather and they don’t eat as much and gain as much weight as healthy cattle. “Hopefully, adding native grasses and wildflowers to pastures will reduce fescue toxicosis.” 

If this study succeeds, adding native wildflowers to pastures in the fescue belt will become a new conservation practice that USDA’s National Resource Conservation Service will cost share.

“If we can find a way, we can improve resources for pollinators and also improve livestock performance,” Tracy says in the release. “It would be a win-win for the environment and for beef cattle producers.”