Quick Fixes to Improve Horse Pastures

While substantial pasture improvements require time and diligent management to maintain, there are some quick fixes that can produce noticeable results.

Photo: Courtesy Krista Lea, MS

Pastures are dynamic ecosystems that respond slowly to many external factors. Pasture management is often a long-term plan, with many improvements taking six months or longer to reveal tangible effects. While these substantial improvements require time and diligent management to maintain, there are some quick fixes that can produce noticeable results. The following are “quick fixes” that can improve pastures in six weeks or less.

A temporary electric fence is an excellent tool to control grazing and traffic in horse pastures. For a few hundred dollars or less, you can purchase a temporary fencing system and move it around a farm as needed. If you find toxic weeds or other pasture hazards, fence these areas off to eliminate the dangers to horses until the situation can be dealt with properly. Electric fencing can also be used to subdivide pastures for rotational grazing or to keep horses out of high-traffic areas.

A temporary electric fence can be used to subdivide pastures for rotational grazing.

Photo: Courtesy Krista Lea, MS

For horses, ¾-inch-wide tape is recommended for visibility. Chargers (solar, electric, or battery) vary in strength and the distance of tape they can charge successfully. Well-electrified or “hot” fences are safer because they command more respect from horses compared to weakly charged fences. Tread in posts are lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to install or move, while T-posts, if insulated properly, are sturdy and might be more useful if you intend to leave fencing in place long time periods. You’ll need to ensure fences are grounded properly and that grasses and weeds don’t touch the fence to ensure proper function.

Never use temporary electric fence as a perimeter fence.

Nitrogen has the single greatest boost to plant production of any fertilizer, but it doesn’t linger in the soil long and, therefore, must be applied regularly. Heavily grazed pastures can benefit from light rates of nitrogen (30-50 pounds of actual nitrogen) anytime desirable forages are growing. This might be spring for cool-season pastures or summer for warm-season pastures. Use caution when fertilizing pastures if weeds are also very active—nitrogen will boost all plants’ productivity, including the undesirable ones. Always fertilize cool-season pastures in the fall to boost root growth and help pastures better survive the winter.

Plan Ahead!

Fall is the best time to seed cool season grasses, but don't wait until the leaves change to start planning. Start preparing now for fall seeding by determining what pastures should be killed and reestablished or overseeded to improve the stand. Many herbicides have long reseeding windows and must be sprayed soon to allow for fall seeding. Reserve seed drills and other equipment ahead of time or make sure to perform annual maintenance performed on owned equipment.
Also, purchase seed soon, as there could be limited availability of desirable varieties closer to prime fall seeding time. Choose grass varieties proven to perform well in your area. Common (VNS) seed might have a lower price, but likely will not perform as well and, ultimately, could be expensive in terms of lost productivity.
Now is also a great time to soil test pastures and apply any needed lime and fertilizers.

Rest is a simple concept but often hard to implement. However, the benefits of resting pastures make it worth the extra effort. When horses graze, they often return to the same areas over and over again, grazing grasses closer each time while allowing weeds to flourish. Mowing weeds down close followed by even just one or two weeks of rest can help shift the advantage back to grass by greatly increase its vigor and productivity. Resting pastures can be as simple as subdividing one pasture with electric fence and grazing only half of it at a time. Ideally, rotate between pastures every three to four weeks or as dictated by forage availability and growth.

Perennial ryegrass is a cool-season grass known for vigorous germination and high-quality grazing. It germinates in as little as four days (some other grasses take two to three weeks) and can provide quick cover in high-traffic areas such as around gates and waterers or can fill in bare areas left by aggressive grazing. It has good palatability and excellent forage quality. Perennial ryegrass is commonly planted in Europe as a base for most pastures, but not utilized as often in the United States because its longevity is poor (one to two years) in regions with hot summers. A word of caution: Perennial ryegrass can be infected with a toxic endophyte similar to tall fescue. Never buy turf-type perennial ryegrass for pastures—always insist on an endophyte-free forage-type variety.

Take-Home Message

Small, inexpensive changes can have big improvements on pastures. These fixes can provide some temporary relief to exhausted pastures until long-term solutions, such as overseeding, complete reestablishment, targeted weed control, and a comprehensive soil fertility program, can be explored and implemented. Contact your local county extension agent for more information or check out the resources below.

Additional Resources

Find more information in the following University of Kentucky (UK) forage publications:

Krista Lea, MS, coordinator of the UK Horse Pasture Evaluation Program, and Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist at UK, provided this information.


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