Spring Pasture Management Do's and Don'ts

After a long, cold winter in much of the United States, many farms and their fields will need some work come spring.

Photo: Thinkstock

After a long, cold winter in much of the United States, many farms and their fields will need some work come spring. The following guidelines will help ensure your pasture management efforts are both beneficial and economical for your farm.

Don’t fertilize cool-season grass pastures heavily with nitrogen in the spring (more than 50-60 pounds actual nitrogen per acre would be considered heavy). These pastures experience a natural flush of growth in the spring; additional nitrogen will only end up costing you in both fertilizer and time spent mowing. Most horse farms do not have high enough stocking rates to utilize all the spring growth and, thus, will end up mowing down most of this production. Also remember that nitrogen benefits weeds and grasses alike.

Instead, take a soil sample. Most healthy pastures in the United States require additional lime, potassium, and phosphorus applications. A soil sample will show exactly what fertilizer you need to add. While you can sample soil anytime, spring is great time to do so because the weather is nice and you can observe how your pasture is recovering from fall grazing and winter conditions. Farm owners cannot truly know what is in their pastures until they actually walk them and see.

Stocking Rates

Stocking rates depend on soil type. In Central Kentucky, for instance, more than one horse per two acres is considered a high stocking rate. But for some place like central Texas, a high stocking rate might be closer to more than one horse per 10 acres. To determine if a pasture has a high stocking rate, work with your county extension agent to calculate your farm's carrying capacity and help you use a web soil survey online tool to view the soil types on your farm.

If stocking rates are high, consider top-dressing nitrogen. On farms where horse numbers are very high, such as small private farms or boarding facilities, top-dressing pastures with nitrogen can help them recover faster from the abuse of the previous fall and provide more grazing sooner. Top dress in late March, the first two weeks of May, and the first two weeks of August, if needed.

For more information on horse pasture fertility, see “Soil Sampling and Nutrient Management in Horse Pastures.”

Don’t undertake spring seeding of cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, orchard grass, and endophyte-free tall fescue in the southern United States. Cool-season pastures are best seeded in the fall when there is less weed pressure, more favorable weather, and a longer rest period before spring grazing.

Instead, diversify your farm and plant alfalfa or bermudagrass.

If you have never considered planting alfalfa on your farm, here are a few ways it might work well for you:

  • For larger farms that own or can purchase hay equipment or use a custom operator, growing alfalfa or alfalfa-mixed hay for on-farm use or cash sales can be profitable, but generally only on a large scale because of the cost of hay-making equipment.
  • Roundup Ready varieties of alfalfa are very useful for pasture renovation. If your current pasture is overrun with weeds or other undesirable forbs, such as endophyte-infected tall fescue, total renovation using alfalfa might be beneficial. Planting a pasture with Roundup Ready alfalfa allows you to treat the pasture with Roundup (glyphosate) throughout the life of the stand to remove weeds and tall fescue. This could be done for a growing season, returning the pasture to cool-season grasses in the fall or leaving the field in place for several years for better weed control.
  • The alfalfa produced can be harvested for hay or grazed by cattle. If you have a beef or dairy farmer for a neighbor, they might be interested in your new crop.

Here are some keys to successful alfalfa establishment:

  • Soil pH is important to alfalfa, so do a soil test and apply the appropriate amount of lime.
  • Alfalfa is a legume, capable of fixing nitrogen from the air and storing it in its roots. When the plant dies, it will leave that nitrogen in the roots, which will benefit any cool-season grasses you plant. However, if you fertilize with nitrogen, you will reduce the plant’s ability to fix nitrogen, costing you considerably more money.
  • Spray Roundup Ready alfalfa with glyphosate soon after planting to remove the few plants that are not tolerant.

For more information, contact your local county extension agent and see “Growing Alfalfa in the South.”

Bermudagrass is a common warm-season forage in the southern United States. However, it can have some applications further north. Because bermudagrass is a warm-season grass, it will be most productive in the summer when traditional cool-season pastures are not as productive. It often has very high yields and is very competitive with weeds. For establishment, seed bermudagrass into a well-prepared, tilled seedbed and not into existing pastures.

Points to keep in mind when considering establishing bermudagrass:

  • Not all bermudagrass varieties will survive winters in states north of Tennessee and North Carolina, so check your state’s forage variety trials for bermudagrass winter survival.
  • Some bermudagrass varieties are planted using sprigs or clipping while others are seeded. Make sure you know what you are getting and that you have the proper equipment for site preparation and planting.
  • Bermudagrass is a high-yielding grass, but it also has high nitrogen and potassium demands.
  • Bermudagrass will go dormant and turn brown in early fall. If you are concerned with having green pastures in October, bermudagrass is not for you.

For more information on bermudagrass, see “Bermudagrass: A Summer Forage.”

Krista Lea, MS, and Ray Smith, PhD, from UK’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, provided this information.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the Bluegrass Equine Digest e-Newsletter.

More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More