AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala.— The minds that brought you Southern Forages have teamed up yet again—writing The Wonder Grass, a comprehensive new book on tall fescue. Retired Alabama Extension forage agronomist Don Ball and his colleagues Carl Hoveland and Garry Lacefield explore how a few acres of grass, first found in eastern Kentucky, became the most important forage grass in the United States.
“William Suiter noticed that one grass on his farm stayed green in cooler months when others grasses went dormant,” Ball said. “Even better, it was perennial, persisted well and his cattle ate it readily.”
That might have been the end of the story if not for Suiter’s enterprising nature. Ball said Suiter began selling seed of the grass to neighbors.
“In the late 1930s, Suiter’s grass attracted Wiliam Johnstone’s attention,” he said. “Johnstone, a University of Kentucky Extension agronomist, promoted its use on Kentucky farms.”
Ball and his co-authors noted that tall fescue was just what farmers needed. It had many beneficial characteristics, including easy establishment, long growing season, dependability and grazing tolerance. All these traits earned tall fescue the nickname the “wonder grass.”
Tall Fescue Comes to Alabama
The story moved to Alabama when Carl and Ed Jones acquired 2,000 pounds of Kentucky 31 tall fescue seed. The brothers established 80 acres of the grass in Madison County in the 1940s.
Ball said that by the 1970s the Jones brothers became the world’s largest producer of Kentucky 31 seed. They remained a major supplier for almost 40 years.
“Tall fescue had so many good points,” Ball said. “But it had its share of problems. Some cattle just didn’t perform well on it.”
Ball and his co-authors examine how fescue toxicosis impacted cattle. It also looks at the research that identified the cause, seed infected with a toxin-producing fungus.
“Auburn University and the Alabama Agriculture Experiment Station are a big part of that part of tall fescue’s story,” Ball said. “Research on the Black Belt Station in Marion Junction confirmed that the fungus was the cause of fescue toxicity.”
The Wonder Grass shows how enterprising farmers, like Suiter and the Jones brothers, and researchers and Extension agents from land-grant universities, spread tall fescue a few acres on a hill in Kentucky to more than 30 million acres nationwide.
Lacefield is a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, while Hoveland is a retired Distinguished Professor of Crop and Soil Sciences at the University of Georgia. Published by the Oregon Tall Fescue Commission, the book can be purchased online at www.oregontallfescue.org/wondergrass.