Spring Green: Sprucing Up Your Pastures

Picture the perfect horse farm in your mind, and you probably envision contented horses grazing velvety green fields that roll away in every direction. When you visit an actual horse pasture, however, reality often includes manure piles surrounded by clumps of coarse grass; patches of bare dirt that show the beginnings of an erosion problem; a few muddy areas with poor drainage; and an amazing variety of healthy, vigorously growing weeds. Turning the reality into the dream is not impossible, but it does take a measure of time and effort.

Naturally good
Forage is an absolute requirement to keep the equine digestive tract functioning properly, and grasses and legumes can also contribute a significant percentage of the horse’s nutrient needs. Therefore, pasture management isn't just about pretty fields; it's mostly about ensuring steady development of young horses and continued health in mature animals. If landowners were not in a hurry and had plenty of financial resources, the best way to achieve those perfect paddocks would be to relocate the horses, remove existing vegetation, and establish the desired grasses and legumes "from the ground up." For most horse owners, however, this process is not practical because of limited turnout areas. The alternative--pasture renovation--is quicker, and the horses can usually be managed on part of the property while the rest undergoes improvement. While it may not be realistic to expect renovated pastures to look like golf courses or manicured lawns, proper management steps can improve almost any pasture. These steps still involve some time and expense, but the rewards--better nutrition for horses as well as an aesthetic benefit--are usually well worth the investment.

What's the first step?
Renovating any pasture or turnout area begins with an assessment by a qualified professional who can walk the fields and make recommendations for improvement. An agricultural extension agent, agronomy specialist from a regional university, or knowledgeable feed mill employee is likely to be familiar with the soils, forage choices, and weather in a particular area. These individuals call on their experience to suggest steps that will have the best chance for success.

Soil testing
Recommendations for pasture renovation are based to a large extent on replacing nutrients that may be missing in the soil. A soil test will indicate what needs to be added, and in what amount, to support strong plant growth. Samples should be collected from the top three to six inches of soil in several parts of the grazing area. If some pasture areas have different characteristics (ridge tops, steep slopes, and valley bottoms, for example), the soil will be distinct enough in each section so that separate samples should be collected and analyzed. Extension agents and feed mill personnel can advise on the exact sampling procedure and provide information as to where the samples should be sent for analysis.

Application of lime and fertilizer
Results of a soil test indicate whether lime should be applied to bring soil pH readings to between 6.2 and 6.5, an ideal range for grass/legume pastures. Phosphorus and potassium should be maintained in the moderate to high range. Application of nitrogen is best done in the fall at a rate of around 30 to 40 pounds per acre and again at the same rate about six to eight weeks later. This schedule promotes growth and increased density of cool-season grasses as they begin to prepare for dormancy, supporting root development through the winter. Nitrogen generally should not be applied in the spring. Overgrowth of spring grass can lead to problems with colic, laminitis, and fescue toxicity, besides the obvious chore of having to mow fields earlier and more frequently.

Weed control
Regular mowing of fields helps to keep weeds in check, but for heavy infestations of undesirable plants, herbicide application may be needed. The best times to apply herbicides are early spring or late fall, though some products are not effective in extremely cold weather when plants are dormant. It may be necessary to keep horses out of treated fields immediately after application of a herbicide. Landowners should carefully follow label directions when using herbicides, and should consult local agricultural extension agents or agronomists for recommendations on the best product and season for use.

Water control
Areas of a pasture where water stands or runs require special measures. Though permanent streams enhance many pastures and ponds, allowing horses free access to these features can quickly lead to degraded banks and trampled waterside vegetation. It may be best to fence horses away from these water sources and provide water in tanks or automatic waterers.

If a field contains areas where water stands or runs temporarily after storms, simple measures can eliminate problems with mud, mosquitoes, and washing of fertilizer and manure into streams. Filling low areas with additional soil is a start. Regrading larger areas may be necessary to channel runoff, and the installation of French drains (a combination of perforated pipe and gravel) just outside pasture fences will help keep fields dry.

Spreading the seeds of grasses or legumes seems like a simple way to improve pasture vegetation, but if it's not done correctly, results can be disappointing. Things to consider include:

Site preparation. Drag or harrow to break up manure piles. Mow or graze down existing grass to allow seeds to reach the ground and minimize seedling competition. Lightly disk pasture soil before seeding, or use a seed drill.

Choice of grass or forage variety. For turnout areas that will mostly be simple exercise areas, select a hardy species that provides dense ground cover and holds up to heavy use. Pasture that is designed for grazing will need forages that provide maximal nutrition to the occupants. Legumes, with their nitrogen-fixing ability, offer the benefit of enriching the soil. Fescue carries the risk of serious toxicity for pregnant mares, but isn't a threat to the average gelding or pleasure horse band. Grasses that look wonderful in Kentucky horse farm photographs may not be suitable for the temperatures and rainfall in another region. Local agricultural extension specialists can recommend the best grasses and legumes for a particular area, as well as the right time to sow seeds for optimal germination.

Seed choice. Certified seed is more expensive but is guaranteed to be pure for the selected strain. Noncertified seed, with a certain portion of other weed and grass seeds mixed in, is less expensive but may reduce yield of the desired strain by up to 20%.

Management after seeding. As much as possible, horses must be kept off newly seeded or renovated areas until the new plants are established. Keeping horses out of the pasture when the soil is extremely wet will minimize damage to plants and root systems. Other important management steps are regular mowing of weeds, rotation of pastures, and avoidance of overstocking.

Article courtesy Kentucky Equine Research.

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