UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program Identifies Kentucky Pasture Trends

With more than 20,000 total farm acres evaluated since its inception in 2005 to the end of 2012, the University of Kentucky's Horse Pasture Evaluation program, led by Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist within UK's department of plant and soil science, knows a thing or two about what's growing (or not growing) in Kentucky's horse pastures.

In 2012, the program's evaluations started early due to a mild winter that left many farms concerned about tall fescue in the winter months. Sampling began in mid-February and continued until early November. During this timeframe, the program's team completed 18 farm evaluations.

In addition to providing valuable information to each of its client farms, the program also produces valuable research. With almost 130 evaluations performed over eight years, the program has a large data set about Kentucky horse pastures. That data set has been determined to be representative as well. A senior research project conducted by student Jacy Ritchie analyzed the team's sampling technique to calculate how much field variation was being missed. She concluded that its sampling technique captures 95% of the variation within a field.

Understanding the program's clients is essential to tailoring its services to meet their needs. The program has determined that there are two main types of clients: the large-scale commercial breeding operations and the small "backyard" pleasure farms. Each type has its own set of concerns and challenges.

According to a year-end report from the program, a few trends have emerged.

The larger farms have typically been Thoroughbred operations with extremely low stocking rates, experienced managers who are versed in agronomic practices, and the necessary resources for continued pasture improvement. Typically these farms are largely unaware of what is in their pastures until a problem, such as pregnancy loss, colic, or a mysterious death, arises. For these farms, tall fescue is always their biggest concern and rightfully so. Of the pastures sampled in this client set for ergovaline concentration (a toxic compound produced by infected tall fescue), 92% had detectable levels of ergovaline and 20% had levels higher than 1,000 ppb (parts per billion), four times higher than what UK considers dangerous to late-term pregnant mares. These farms are often surprised at the amount of tall fescue present, as well as how low their bluegrass and orchardgrass concentrations are. Weeds, with the exception of nimblewill, are not often an issue, especially in the larger pastures.

In these situations UK's team focuses on tall fescue removal or how to manage around fescue and select pastures that should be killed off entirely. In 2012 the program had several farms choose to spray out pastures completely due to the tall fescue and nimblewill present. Several others selectively removed tall fescue in pastures that were otherwise in good shape. These farms also tend to have set schedules for seeding, mowing, dragging, and fertilizing. In many cases the Horse Pasture Evaluation Program team advised client farms to reduce those scheduled practices and do them at more opportune times to maximize the return on investment and save money for other needs.

The second kind of client farm the program predominantly serves is the small "backyard" pleasure farm, which has an entirely different focus and challenges than large farms. The pasture evaluation team has found that these farms tend have far too many horses for the amount of land available, the soil types are generally less productive, and the owners have little or no experience in many agronomic practices. Very few of these farms ever breed horses, so tall fescue is an asset to them, as it is extremely tolerant of intense grazing. Their challenges are usually to improve ground cover, reduce weeds, and maintain those results. Some also express an interest in reducing clover in order to prevent slobbers or because they have an overweight horse.

When these client farms are advised to seed or spray, follow-up questions tend to be centered on how to do that. These farms are interested in what equipment is needed, where to get that equipment, and how to use it. County extension agents often know the local stores or private farms that allow equipment to be leased. In fact, many of these agents are familiar with the equipment and can help farm owners learn to operate it.

Controlling pasture renovation cost is also a big issue on these farms. Since the program began offering a more affordable, small-farm package in 2010 that excludes expensive tall fescue testing, 16 small farms have invested in the Horse Pasture Evaluation Program and have been making improvements. One in particular has requested services every year indefinitely. That farm has extremely steep-sloped land that was recently a forest. The farm is working one field at a time to improve pastures, with a goal of feeding hay less than 60 days a year.

On small farms, the team encounters a variety of horse breeds. All are usually described as members of the family. These farms typically hear about UK's program through their local county extension agent and over time become regular attendees to many extension events.

Some other trends the team identified:

  • 92% of pastures sampled had detectable levels of ergovaline;
  • Nimblewill is one of the most common weeds seen on large-scale farms, and most managers have no idea it is there;
  • UK specialists frequently recommend more efficient pasture management on large farms, such as mowing, seeding, and dragging of pastures at strategic times;
  • Mud is small private farms' biggest challenge; and
  • County extension agents are a valuable asset to farms big and small.

For more information and forage publications, visit The group also maintains a Facebook page: UKHorsePastureEvaluation.

Krista Cotten, graduate student and assistant coordinator of UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program, provided this information.

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