Pasture and Fencing

It's worth the time and expense to establish productive and nutritious pasture, then maintain it. And if you maintain your pasture, you'll want to keep your horses secure with a safe fencing system.

The following are tips on management of your pastures and fencing.

Pasture Management

Test the soil In order to keep your pasture healthy, you need to have the soil analyzed every two to three years before the growing season begins to determine the pH and available nutrients, according to Charles Dougherty, PhD, University of Kentucky professor of grassland systems.

Sid Bosworth, PhD, extension agronomist, University of Vermont, adds, "The soil pH can vary widely from field to field depending on the type of soil indigenous to the area and how the land was managed."

Regardless of where you live, you start the process by collecting soil samples from 10 to 15 locations throughout the field. First, clear away weeds, dead grass, or leaves. Then, according to Bosworth, dig three to six inches down from the surface to reach the soil that will produce the most accurate test results. Collect samples into a plastic bucket, mix well, and send to a lab.

Find a testing lab close to home, as local labs are calibrated for the region's soil type. Bosworth suggests you contact your local county extension office or at your local feed store to help in finding a lab.

Liming and fertilizing your pasture The ground should be limed in accordance with the test results. In a cold weather climate, Bosworth recommends liming in late fall after the ground has frozen but before it snows. Then, in the early spring when the ground thaws and heaves, the lime will be incorporated into the soil naturally.

Dougherty says a fall liming program can be used in warmer weather climates where muddy conditions are typical in the early spring. Dougherty suggests applying lime, phosphorous, and potassium fertilizer every two or three years to optimize pasture growth. Strategic nitrogen fertilization is considered acceptable throughout the season to increase growth when needed.

Allow sufficient time before you re-introduce your horses to the pasture. Dougherty warns, "Enough time (probably 24 hours) should lapse to allow fertilizers to fall or wash through the foliage to the soil to avoid potential toxicity."

Types of forages Grasses differ from legumes in that they require an outside nitrogen source (i.e., soil nitrogen or nitrogen fertilizer), whereas legumes create their own nitrogen.

Annual grasses such as rye, wheat, and small grains need to be replanted every year, while perennial grasses such as orchardgrass or timothy regenerate yearly.

Legumes, including clover and alfalfa, are rich in protein and magnesium, with as much as five times the calcium as their grass counterparts, making them the leading nutritive forage. They're also highly palatable and digestible, although if horses are not acclimatized gradually, they can easily founder, bloat, or suffer from colic.

If you're not sure what forages are right for your situation, check with your local farm store or county extension specialist.

Seeding Grass or legume seeds can be planted at different times of year, depending on the needs of the pasture.

"Start by targeting the areas in need, such as areas that have been trampled or eaten down to the roots, then remove the old grass, weeds, and toxic plants, either by cultivation or by herbicide, before seeding," says Dougherty.

You can plant seeds with a grain drill or broadcast, also known as top seeding, which is a two-step process that calls for a cultipacker seeder or a press wheel to place seeds and compact the soil.

In cold weather climates, you can take advantage of a winter/early spring "frost seeding" program. As with lime application, if you seed after the ground has frozen, in the spring the seeds will be enfolded into the soil to germinate.

Pasture maintenance The two most important maintenance tasks are mowing and dragging. By keeping forage heights between two and three inches, you encourage the plants' root systems to concentrate on new cell development instead of expending energy on maintaining older growth. Pasture should not be grazed lower to avoid depleting root reserves.

While mowing keeps fast-growing weeds under control, in some cases you might need to use chemical weed treatments, especially if there are toxic plants. Bosworth recommends applying herbicides in early spring before plant germination, or late fall before frost. You will have to remove horses for a time following application.

Dragging fields helps break up manure piles. While the ideal course would be to remove manure on a daily basis to lower the rate of parasite infestation, it is too labor-intensive for most farms. Therefore, spreading the manure using a chain harrow can be a viable alternative.

Don't depend on dragging the fields to end parasites in your horses. High temperatures are needed to kill parasite eggs once exposed from the manure piles. Continue your regular deworming schedule.

Fencing Your Pasture

Bob Coleman, PhD, an equine specialist with the University of Kentucky, says no matter what fence you choose, there are a few ground rules: "For instance, fences are typically set with the posts positioned at eight to 10 feet apart and stand 54 to 60 inches high, not counting at least 36 inches of the post that should be placed below ground for stability." He says location plays a role in installation, especially with regard to securing posts and gates. 

Wood fences These are traditional favorites for their aesthetics, strength, and visibility. Wood is readily available and can be installed by the farm owner or a professional. If you have rocks in your area, you might have to use machinery to set posts.

"If the wood is young, it's a sure sign that it is wet inside, which means that it'll likely twist or split as it dries," says Coleman. "It's a good idea to get pressure-treated posts. Even though there is some concern that chemically treated wood is toxic, it's a non-issue when you consider that a horse will have to consume three times his weight to cause him any harm."

Wood fencing is expensive to install and maintain. "Between the weather and general wear and tear, rails or boards that are left unattended will deteriorate quickly," Coleman says. "Therefore, before you decide on wood, consider the time you'll spend on routine maintenance to protect against the warping, rotting, or breaking."

Wood fences come in three standard styles--rustic or split rail, slip board, and nail-on board. There are distinct differences between them, but it is usually personal preference that becomes the determining factor in what type of fence you choose.

Wire Fencing

Mesh Keystone, square deal, or diamond mesh wires are viable choices, says Coleman. The mesh consists of non-welded wire strands knotted tightly together to keep horses in and other animals out. These fences are good options for a relatively level pasture surrounded by dense woods. Mesh wire fencing is considered durable and resistant to abuse or entanglement, especially in tight quarters, for foals, or stallions, but you'd want to combine it with a wood top rail to provide a sight line and keep it stable.

Installation is easy once you get the posts in, as it just needs to be stretched properly and attached to the posts. The downside to mesh fencing is that it is not recommended for steep terrain. Mesh wires are not flexible enough to accommodate the hills and valleys inherent to many areas.

Electric Coleman likes electric fencing as an alternative, although he emphasizes that it usually isn't used as a perimeter fence or in areas where the pressure on the fence is great. "However, it is ideal for creating portable paddocks and for dividing your pasture for rotation purposes," he adds.

Tapes and coated wires are visible to horses as well as alarming when touched, which proves to be a strong deterrent. Installation is easy. Securing two or three strands to wood or plastic posts or metal pipe frames usually works well.

Polymer (vinyl) Some rigid PVC fencing is designed with a locking system that allows the rail to become dislodged from the post as opposed to breaking upon impact. Coleman advises you find out whether ultraviolet inhibitors and impact emulsifiers are included to ensure that the fence materials won't break down in sunlight.

Installing rigid PVC fencing is fairly simple; the posts are fitted into a cement base, and the rails are slipped into the locking system. Prices vary due to the conditions and terrain, as well as to the grade of rigid PVC. Because it's virtually maintenance-free, you'll save after installation.

Considered safer than wood while offering a similar appearance, there are some drawbacks. The locking system, while designed to provide safety in case of a break-out situation, can also contribute to the possibility of loose horses. The fence provides a certain amount of flexibility if a horse should lean or bump into it, but in tight quarters, it might not be able to withstand a sudden impact.

Flexible polyethylene rail Also known as continuous run fence, it is constructed of wire bonded to polymer to create a rail with 2,000 pounds of break strength. It will return to its original shape upon impact, and it is easy to install. While other fencing systems are connected from one post to the next, the continuous run fence has one rail fed through the specially designed brackets. It can be used in combination with wood, solid plastic, or metal T-posts. Similar to rigid PVC, this fence can withstand extreme climate conditions, and it is considered maintenance free.

Coleman says, "As for a down side, it may not look like a board fence, and it may be more expensive to install. The newer materials seem to last, but proper installation will be the key to its effectiveness."

About the Author

Toby Raymond

Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.

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