There's a whole lot more to grazing management than simply turning your horses out when the pastures green up. Regular fence maintenance, careful planning of fertilizing and seeding, strategic weed control, and attention to temperatures and growing conditions all come into play when keeping pastures. Bob Coleman, PhD, associate director of undergraduate education in equine sciences at the University of Kentucky; David Freeman, PhD, an extension specialist at Oklahoma State University; and Brett Scott, PhD, an extension horse specialist at Texas A&M, have several tips and guidelines for horse owners to keep pastures productive.
Late Winter/Early Spring
"This is a good time to be thinking about whatever type of weed control will be needed, before weeds become an issue," says Coleman. If the past grazing season was hard on pastures or overgrazing was an issue, and spring planting is appropriate in your location, this is a good time to think about establishing a better stand of forage in some of your pastures.
Scott says it's important to detect weeds early in spring, before they become well-established. "Once they're growing prolifically they can take over, block the sunlight, and rob nutrients from more desirable pasture plants," he says. "Most weeds are broad-leaf and come out earlier than grasses. Treated early in the year, you can eliminate a weed problem and improve overall quality of warm season forages." Spray or mow, or if it's just a small patch you can inhibit them by chopping them off. If you find an unfamiliar plant in your pasture and don't know whether it's a weed, take a sample to your county extension agent to find out.
Spring also can be the best time to fertilize your pastures, and Scott recommends performing soil tests to find out what type of fertilizer to use. He says to take a soil sample to your extension agent, who will send it off and later interpret the returned report.
You might also want to seed more pasture plants. "It's all about planning and thinking ahead," says Coleman. "Spring planting is best for legumes, in most locations. If you want to add a legume to your pastures check with your extension agent to see what will work in your area," since planting seasons and species among regions vary.
Freeman points out that many areas of the United States rely on summer pastures and warm season grasses to supply most of the nutrition, and the farther south you get, the more true this is. "In late winter or early spring, cool season grasses will start growing prior to warm season grasses," says Freeman. "Whether the early plants are native grasses or cool season weeds will depend on your pasture management."
Cool season grasses might be native, or they can be interseeded with warm season grasses to extend the grazing season. "Depending on the region, some are annuals and planted yearly, sod-seeded over top of warm season plants," says Freeman. "If you planted these in the fall, you can expect March and April growth of cool season grasses. Otherwise, you'll have to wait until May or June for the warm season grasses." Spring growth also depends on how you fertilize and control weeds.
If your horses are on a rotational grazing schedule, early spring is the time to see if you need to repair old or create new fence. "Some people take down temporary fencing for winter to let horses have more acreage, then divide pastures again for summer grazing," notes Freeman. "If you used a solar-powered charger for an electric fence, you might have put it away during winter. You might want to re-fence your pasture in a different configuration than last year, perhaps to rest some land. Do you have enough posts, or enough tape or braided rope? Will it last another season, or do you need to replace it?"
Coleman also suggests keeping track of which farm supply stores have materials on sale, rather than waiting till the last minute when you discover you need new handles or tapes for your electric fence. Plan ahead and walk your boundary fences to make sure everything is okay, or find out what you need to repair before spring grazing starts. Check ground wires on your fencer if it's been off for a while.
Spring is a good time to address fence maintenance issues before horses are on frequent turnout. "Walk your fencelines and see what needs done," says Freeman. "Wire fences need to be restretched occasionally, regardless of how well you put in the corner posts." Sometimes wild animals stretch or break wires, a tree falls over the fence, or horses rub or lean over it.
"Spring is also the time to make sure your watering system is set to go," says Coleman. "Hopefully, you cleaned it out in the fall." Make sure it works before you're down to the wire and need to use it. If you ran temporary water lines to rotational pad-docks, do you need anything to fix some of the plumbing fixtures? Make sure nothing froze or split during winter, or got stepped on last year.
"You may need to pick up manure where horses were overwintered or drylotted and fed," notes Coleman. "You may have to wait until the frost is out, but it should be done before warm weather. The old feed mat can become a place for flies to breed."
Before the busy summer riding season begins check mowing equipment, making sure it is serviced and blades are sharp. "Once you get behind on these things, you end up playing catch-up all summer long," says Coleman.
This is when you must manage your pastures for optimum forage production, which usually means rotational grazing. The best management technique for your situation will depend on climate and growing season, size of pastures, number of horses, types of plants, and how fast they regrow. You might want to move horses weekly, or every two weeks, depending on these variables.
"Warm season grasses will supply a lot of forage for horses if the pasture is set up correctly for grazing management," says Freeman. "You may get as few as four months or up to seven or eight months of grazing, depending on where you are, relying on primarily warm season grass that's either actively growing or left in the field, stockpiled for fall and winter grazing."
"Most grasses are most nutritious if they are four to eight inches in height," says Freeman. "Some cool season forages are best at four to five inches, whereas some of the warm season grasses need to be five to six inches tall before you graze them heavily. The more you have to leave horses on a pasture--the more limited you are in plant management and the more important it is to choose a grass that can tolerate heavy grazing. In the southern U.S. there's a lot of Bermuda grass planted, since it is fairly nutritious and because of the way it grows, with rhizomes (creeping stems that usually lie horizontally at or under the surface of the soil). It can tolerate close grazing."
The more you can manage grazing, the more production you'll get and the longer your grazing season will last, regardless of how much fertilizer or herbicide you use. "Some people get by without fertilizer or herbicide use, but it takes some very intensive grazing practices," says Freeman.
Check fences regularly in summer to make sure they are safe for horses at pasture. Frequency of checking will depend on the type of fence and the risks for problems, such as wildlife traffic, storms that might blow trees over the fence, temperature, etc. "For instance, the high-tensile wire that many horse farms now use will relax and stretch in really hot weather," says Scott. "If summer temperatures go above 100 degrees for multiple days, this type of fencing needs to be checked frequently. Some of the manufacturing companies recommend tightening the fence in summer, but then you need to remember to release them in the fall or they'll be too tight in cold weather."
Where he lives in Texas, humidity is also a factor. "I have the round type of PVC fencing that looks like pipe and cable. But humidity is so high that there's fungal growth on the fence and I have to wash it about three times a year," says Scott.
Now is the time to get things ready for winter. You might need to apply heat tapes (plug-in cables that are applied according to manufacturer instructions to pipes to prevent freezing) to water pipes for your watering system or make sure the old ones are working. "Are heaters in your waterers working correctly? You don't want stray voltage to keep the horses from drinking, for instance," says Coleman.
Fall is also a good time to address fence maintenance, before weather gets bad or the frozen ground complicates the setting of new posts. If you tightened high-tensile wires during heat of summer, it's time to release the extra tension. If you use tape-type electric fence, make sure it doesn't stretch during rainy weather (when it becomes wet and heavy) or when snow covers it. In some instances this inclement weather can cause the fence to weigh down to the ground and short out.
"Wood fence should be checked to make sure staples, nails, etc. are not working loose," says Scott. "In freezing rain or cold conditions, or whenever wood is wet, it swells. The changes (swelling when wet and contracting when dry) may eventually loosen staples or nails. You may suddenly find wires sagging because staples have come out and wires are no longer attached to the posts." he says.
"Temperature swings, ice, snow, etc., can all impact a fence," says Scott. "PVC fencing is supposed to be maintenance-free and not supposed to shrink. But the joints and connections could be affected by extreme weather changes, and you need to look at those to make sure they are not loose."
Assess your pastures in the fall. "Depending on what your grazing season was like, are you in an area where fall seeding is most appropriate for reestablishing grasses in your pasture mix?" says Colean. "In some areas fertilization might be more appropriate in the fall than in the spring. Have you done your soil tests? Are you ready to fertilize pastures and hayfields in the spring?"
In some regions applying fall fertilizer is more appropriate and might also fit your schedule better. The ground might be firmer and not as muddy as in spring, and you are not as apt to get stuck with a tractor.
"Spring fertilization may stimulate a lot of top growth, but often fall application stimulates more root growth and can thicken up the stand," says Coleman. "A thicker stand will do more good, over time, than a lot of growth at the top that may just be trampled. Weed treatment in the fall may or may not be appropriate, depending on the target plants. If the weeds are not actively growing, it can be a waste of chemical. Mowing of weeds in the fall may be more helpful."
If you live in a Southern region where you can extend your fall/winter grazing by planting additional grass in the fall, check with your extension agent or seed company to know which grasses grow best in your area, seeding rates, and whether to drill or broadcast the seed. "Some varieties tolerate cold and come up earlier in the spring," says Freeman.
Scott adds, "Here in the Gulf Coast region most people plant winter rye. It's something you can seed over existing grasses and don't have to drill it in. The seed company will mix seed and fertilizer together in one big fertilizer spreader and you can drive through your pastures and spread it all at once. Then if you get some rains in January or February you'll see green plants popping up everywhere, and this can help maintain horses through the rest of the winter. Farther north you can use different forages, such as winter oats."
Pastures follow a pattern of growth, and planning ahead can help you work with these patterns and make the most of your fields. You also should ensure that no matter what type of fencing you use, it is in good shape for each season.
The important thing is to make a yearly plan. "There are many people who can help you do this, regardless of where you live," says Scott.
About the Author
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.
POLL: University Equine Hospitals