Now is the time to make improvements to your pastures in order to have the best and most nutritious grazing for your horses next spring. A well-maintained pasture also offers a practical and economic break for you, as well. Through pasturing, your feed and supplement costs are likely to be reduced, particularly if you have a mature, idle horse, or a mare in the early stages of gestation. Plus, bedding and stall maintenance will be much less for horses kept mostly at pasture, and many of the problems associated with confinement--such as weaving, cribbing, and heaves--might no longer be issues.
As Clyde Johnson, VMD, in Spofford, N.H., says, "Many equine diseases are management diseases, which can be easily remedied with an understanding of the equine temperament. In essence, produce a setting in which your horse is safe to roam, and you will have created an environment that reflects its fundamental nature." Picturesque surroundings are an added bonus.
Start the process of improving pastures by having the soil tested. Soil that has been properly prepared provides a healthy environment for your plants' root systems. Your local county extension agent (listed in the phone book), or a regional agricultural extension specialist at a nearby university, will be able to determine the soil quality and make necessary recommendations.
David Bade, PhD, extension forage specialist at Texas A&M University, recommends testing soil every two to three years to keep on top of any micro-nutrient deficiencies that could influence the nutritional values of existing forages. He emphasizes that fertility management in past years becomes an issue when improving pasture.
Sid Bosworth, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont, agrees. "Soil pH (acidity) can vary quite a bit from field to field depending on the type of soil and the past management history. Therefore, determining soil pH, and getting a lime requirement (how much lime is needed per acre to change the pH to a suitable level for that pasture) before seeding, is critical. Besides, the results will not only call for what the soil needs, but also what it doesn't need."
One example, he says, is this: "Too much phosphorus, through run-off, can become a hazard by getting into streams, rivers, and lakes, causing negative environmental consequences. Yet phosphorus is essential to the fertilization process and is necessary to maintain the correct calcium to phosphorus ratio, notably in growing horses."
Keith Johnson, PhD, forage and crops specialist at Purdue University Cooperative Extension, says that in the Midwest, the ideal time to have the soil tested is after June 1, primarily as it relates to potassium. Soil sampling during the early spring months, he explains, might result in an inaccurate reading, possibly due to plant growth and changes in soil levels after that growth.
Bade advises taking several samples throughout the pasture. First, clear away weeds, dead grass, and leaves, then gather soil anywhere from three to six inches below the surface. Bade further suggests indicating the type of pasture you are growing--predominantly grasses, a legume/grass mix, and so on. If you're not sure what would be best suited to your area, get in touch with your feed store, or contact your county extension specialist for advice. Also, if possible, choose a soil testing lab close to home, as localized labs are calibrated for their region's particular soil type.
Ensuring adequate drainage is also important for a healthy pasture. This might be a problem in your area that requires special attention, especially if you live where the soil is clay-based, silt loam, or sandy.
If starting from scratch, installing tile or surface drainage systems could be the most effective solution, but costs could be substantial. Installing a drainage system is difficult to do in an established area. Another option is to apply four to six inches of topsoil, although the costs might be equally as expensive. It is possible, depending on the size of your acreage, to target one section at a time.
A third alternative, and the least costly, is to add compost. Although compost will not change the texture of the soil, it can improve the composition, thereby enabling it to retain nutrients and water more easily.
Before adding nutrients, it is necessary to implement a weed control program. Whether through herbicide applications for severely infested areas or by mowing, weed control will greatly enhance the quality of your pasture. Clip perennial and annual weeds prior to seed formation in order to keep growth in check.
"If you are applying herbicides, it is best to do so either early in the spring before horses are turned out, or in the late fall after they are no longer grazing, providing label instructions are followed," notes Charles Dougherty, PhD, grasslands research professor at the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture. "Some herbicides are not effective if it's too cold or the plants are dormant."
The next step is to remove or spread existing manure. While removal is preferred, it is labor-intensive and expensive. A far more practical solution would be to drag the pasture with a chain or tine harrow. Not only will this help the sun destroy parasite eggs and larvae, it is also beneficial in redistributing nutrients as well as smoothing out overly trodden areas. In addition, tine harrowing in particular is a useful method of cultivation. By breaking up grass and soil, albeit lightly, it allows air, water, and chemicals (including lime) to penetrate.
Even though you might have an established pasture, you can potentially double herbage production by following fertilization directions in accordance with your test results. Dougherty relates, "Historically, horse breeding operations in states such as Kentucky, Florida, and Virginia were established on soils derived from marine limestones because they were considered to have naturally superior properties for bone growth in young horses. Applications of agricultural limestone, however, are now required to neutralize the acids that have formed in the soil. Kentucky bluegrass, for instance, is much improved by adding ag-lime followed by a potash and nitrogen fertilizer in our region."
Lime is best applied six months to a year before planting, if possible, to allow sufficient time for it to become absorbed. In a cold weather climate, Bosworth suggests liming in the late fall, particularly after the ground has frozen, but before it snows. Then, in the early spring as the ground thaws and heaves, the lime will be more readily assimilated. Dougherty also recommends a fall liming program for Kentucky, but mainly due to the muddy conditions that occur in early spring.
The easiest and most cost-effective method of improving your pasture is to incorporate new forage cultivars (selectively bred plants). When planning for this, it is important to consider your climate, soil conditions, and the number and type of horses which will be utilizing the area. There are many plant species from which to choose, but your selection should be based on growth rate, drainage, and adaptability to your location.
Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that horses are known for their "patch" grazing habits, with preferences varying from horse to horse. This can result in one plant species being favored to the exclusion of another. In addition, areas they consider to be unappetizing often become dedicated to manure and urine, leaving untouched plants and weeds to grow and regenerate while the choicest foliage is eaten to the ground. The areas around the manure are given a wide berth, adding to the amount of undesirable growth and, subsequently, decreasing valuable pasture space. Horses are very tough on a pasture, so grass species that can withstand hoof traffic and close grazing should be considered.
"Herbage grasses and legumes have distinctly different agronomic characteristics," Dougherty states. "Grasses need an outside nitrogen source, i.e., soil nitrogen or nirogen fertilizer (whether chemical or organic), whereas legumes fix nitrogen from the air, thereby creating their own fertilizer base."
Grasses also can be classified as annuals and perennials. Annuals such as annual ryegrass, rye, wheat, and other small grains need to be replanted every year, while perennials like orchardgrass or timothy regenerate yearly.
Legumes, such as clover and alfalfa, have a higher protein and magnesium content plus as much as five times the amount of calcium as grasses, ranking them as the leading nutritive forage source. Legumes are also highly palatable and digestible, but if these are eaten to excess without acclimating gradually, horses can easily founder or suffer from colic.
Chris Agee, national forage product manager with Pennington Seed Company, considers a 70% grass/30% legume combination a good mix for pastures in the Northeast. This mix will provide a sound nutritional foundation, offer an opportunity for horses to adapt to rich forages more slowly, and maintain a lower instance of plant disease than monocultures (pastures with only one plant species). He identifies Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass as the preferred perennials, because they are the most palatable and hoof-resistant, with orchardgrass, timothy, and smooth bromegrass also considered to be good choices. White clover is often selected for its resilience to hoof pressure and ability to withstand close contact grazing. Red clover and alfalfa are known to be higher in nutrition, but don't stand traffic as well.
For warm weather regions, Agee recommends fall planting of tall fescue that is endophyte-free or contains nontoxic endophyte (more on this later), and after a year or two of establishment, following that with a seeded variety of bermudagrass in the spring. While this is the quintessential warm weather, cool weather association, fertilization timing is vital to maintaining each species in the pasture. To illustrate: If bermudagrass is taking over, only fertilize at tall fescue's optimum time until the balance is restored (late fall and early spring). Bermudagrass should be fertilized every eight weeks starting in early May. If the pasture is planted with 30% of a legume variety--either the re-seeded annual arrowleaf clover or the perennial white clover--you can provide nutritionally sound, nearly year-round grazing.
Agee also made special mention that new tall fescue cultivars have been inoculated with nontoxic endophytes, making them safe for broodmares in late gestation. He maintains that broodmares which consume this variety will not be at risk of abortion, prolonged pregnancy, or low milk production. Johnson added that endophyte-free or nontoxic tall fescue is a valuable addition to a pasture chiefly in heavy traffic areas or dry conditions, making it a good candidate for many situations and climates.
Grasses and legumes indigenous to specific regions of the country should be the main concentration of plantings, but by combining warm weather and cool weather grasses (also called warm season or cool season grasses and legumes), seasonal grazing time can be substantially increased. Although it is wise to master the basic program first, Johnson contends that once a pasture is established and properly maintained, adding a warm-season grass such as Indian grass with a cool-season grass like orchardgrass can prove highly productive. He went on to say that he prefers Kentucky bluegrass to timothy for the Midwest in summer, as timothy is late to mature and is less tolerant of drought than Kentucky bluegrass. His preference is nontoxic endophyte tall fescue during the hottest months.
There are several varieties of prepared seed blends on the market, or you can buy them individually to create your own combination. If you're not sure what is right for your situation, check with your local farm store or with your county extension specialist.
Preparing a firm seed bed in a new pasture is essential to the germination process. Bosworth suggests seeding as early in the spring as possible, using a cultipacker seeder to place seeds and compact the soil. A grain drill is another effective method to control seed depth. Broadcasting, also known as topseeding, is a third option that is a two-step procedure calling for a cultipacker or a press wheel to secure the seeds.
In cold weather climates, a late fall "frost seeding" program is effective if applied after the ground has frozen. As with the lime application, in the following spring, when the ground thaws, the seeds will be enfolded into the soil to germinate. If seeding a pasture in the fall, perhaps with perennial ryegrass, horses can start grazing the pasture lightly in the spring. Usually the horses are off of the pasture for about six months. Animal traffic can help put the seeds in contact with the soil during the spring. If using this "frost seeding" method, good soil to seed contact is important.
In an established pasture, seeding can be done in a current stand using a no-till drill. In Kentucky, many counties have a no-till drill available for rent (check with an extension agent to see if this is so in your area). You might also consider using a commercial company that has the proper equipment and the expertise to do the job correctly.
Depending on your stocking rate and pasture size, there are essentially two procedures--rotational or continuous grazing--that when utilized properly assure an abundance of healthy plant growth.
Rotational pasturing is ideal for small areas with low stocking rates. When you move horses on a regular schedule, you give them the advantage of foraging on higher quality, more plentiful feed, while leaving sections idle to recuperate.
It is important to minimize the possibility of overgrazing, however, as horses will eat anything green, even toxic plants, if they are unduly hungry. A general rule of thumb, depending on your location, is to provide at least one acre per horse or to limit pasture time and supplement the diet with hay and possibly concentrates when horses are stalled.
A good management program can keep your fields providing an ample supply of nutritious forage. Periodic mowing will preserve nutrient levels and keep fast-growing weeds under control. Nutrient values are highest in the leaf and stem portions, so by maintaining plant heights of two to four inches throughout the season, root systems will concentrate on new cell development as opposed to directing energy toward older, more fibrous growth. As mentioned before, removing or spreading manure also should be an important part of the routine.
Johnson's advice is to fertilize your fields at intervals throughout the growing season as well as into the late fall. By stockpiling reserves of nourishment, particularly potassium and phosphorus, winter plants will have a greater rate of survival during the coldest months.
If your pastures are on a rotational program, it is advisable to fertilize after your horses have been moved. Depending on how you fertilize the pasture, horses might not need to be moved for long--24 hours is recommended.
Less Can Be More
Whether your operation is large or small, much can be accomplished with planning and patience. Even a small paddock can supply rich, nourishing feed. To see your horse with his head down munching on the grass that was planted just for that purpose is worth the time and investment.
About the Author
Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.