Winter can be a difficult time for pasture management. Horse pastures often are abused by the stress of winter, especially following a drought like the one Central Kentucky and surrounding states experienced this fall. However, there are a few simple steps horse owners can follow to minimize winter damage to pastures and encourage better plant growth for grazing next spring.

Encourage Spring Recovery by Resting Pastures

Many farms in Kentucky have suffered from drought conditions and overgrazing this fall. Therefore, it is important that pastures be given a rest. Grazing stressed pastures all winter severely hinders the ability of plants to rejuvenate in the spring and could result in plants dying out. The trampling that results from feeding hay in paddocks also makes it difficult for grasses to come back in the spring. Therefore, resting paddocks and establishing a sacrifice area for turnout and hay feeding is a key to managing horse pastures through the winter.

Nitrogen Application to Boost Pasture Recovery

Fall is the best time to apply nitrogen (to improve forage density) to a horse pasture. Late fall applications in November through mid-December should be limited to about 30 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre (or 100 pounds per acre of ammonium nitrate). This might result in a slight increase in grass production this fall, depending on rainfall, but most importantly, pasture grasses will use this nitrogen for early winter root growth and new below-ground shoot development, both of which stimulate quicker recovery in spring.

Late Winter/Spring Preparations

Early fall is normally the ideal time to seed a horse pasture; however, the current drought has likely caused many fall pasture seedings this year to fail. Therefore, spring seeding of desirable grasses is recommended for thin pastures. Remember that the longer horses are kept off a seeded pasture, the better the chances of a successful establishment. Seeding should begin when daytime temperatures are above 50°F (usually early March).

Nitrogen applications in the spring also can help boost recovery from a difficult winter on mature pastures or strengthen a spring seeding. These applications should be in the range of 40-50 pounds of actual nitrogen and can follow spring seeding once seedlings begin to emerge. Spring seeding and nitrogen applications are especially recommended for sacrifice areas that might be very damaged after winter.

Weed control in the spring is a concern to many horse farms. Spring herbicide applications are often beneficial, however it can be difficult to spray and seed the same field in one spring. For this reason, managers should decide whether spraying or seeding is the greater priority. If fields are primarily thin, managers should seed and apply nitrogen. However, if weeds are the primary concern, managers might consider using a broadleaf herbicide. Spray when three days of daytime temperatures above 50��F are forecast and nighttime temperatures are not dipping below freezing. Any new seeding must be held off at least six weeks after herbicide application; therefore, a spring spraying usually dictates that seeding must wait until the fall (check herbicide label for the recommended spray rate and wait period).

For more information on managing horse pastures or other forage information, visit the UK College of Agriculture website.

Ray Smith, PhD, forage extension specialist, and Krista Cotton, pasture evaluation associate, both from UK's plant and soil sciences department, provided this content.

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