As the University of Kentucky's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program begins to wrap up its third year serving Central Kentucky horse farms, forage experts share some of the horse pasture trends they've seen during the past three years and recommend steps farms should take now to ensure healthy pastures next year.


"The UK forage extension team has been extremely pleased with the success of the Horse Pasture Evaluation Program," said Ray Smith, UK forage extension specialist. "We have thoroughly enjoyed working with the farms that enrolled in the program and have been very impressed with the professional animal care and handling that we have observed on all farms. The majority of farms are to be commended for the good job they are doing in their pasture management programs."

From the three years of pastureland study done by his team, Smith said some common trends have emerged. One trend should trouble area farms because it directly limits the number of horses that can be supported on area pastures. Currently, close to one-third of the pastureland Smith's team has evaluated is nonproductive, meaning it is covered by weeds or bare soil instead of grass.

The other two-thirds of evaluated area pastures break down as follows: 26% bluegrass, 24% tall fescue, 12% orchard grass and 8% white clover. Bluegrass and orchard grass are considered most desirable for horse pastures, whereas a high percentage of tall fescue is worrisome to many area horse farms with broodmares. Ergovaline, commonly found in tall fescue, is toxic and can cause foal loss in pregnant mares. Smith said the percentage of tall fescue found on many farms has been high enough to warrant control methods such as herbicide treatments or even total replanting.

Smith also noted some trends specific to 2007. He said the freeze in April slowed pasture growth. That was closely followed by a severe drought in late spring and into the summer, also followed by hotter than normal temperatures in August, all of which limited pasture growth throughout the summer across Kentucky and much of the Southeast. This meant that bluegrass went dormant early this year.

Smith also reported that tall fescue and summer annual grasses handled the dry weather better, as did, unsurprisingly, weeds. He added that pasture grasses have an amazing ability to green-up with fall rains and lower temperatures.

To combat the stresses of this year and to get pastures in shape for next year, Smith recommended that horse owners take steps now. According to Smith, fall is the optimal time to improve a pasture's health. He offered a few tips that will be useful to large horse farms as well as those with only a few head of horses on a handful of acres. Those tips include:

  • Take soil samples. Work with your local county extension agent to determine fertilizer requirements, and apply recommended lime and potassium and phosphorus fertilizer at any time of year. Nitrogen should be applied in late fall for cool-season grasses to encourage root growth and establishment. Often, spring application of nitrogen to cool season grasses causes excessive above ground growth instead.
  • Seed pastures with bare areas now through late September. There is a much higher chance of success with cool season grasses by seeding now instead of late winter or early spring. Use a no-till drill if at all possible. Once seedlings germinate, try to keep animals off of the area until the grass has had time to establish. One reference is "Establishing and Managing Horse Pastures," found on UK's forages Web site.
  • Avoid damaging pastures during the winter and early spring. Periodically move hay feeding areas and limit vehicle traffic on wet soils. Establishing a sacrifice paddock will also be helpful.
  • Control broadleaf weeds. Spray in late September through late October when weeds are actively growing but still small. Use recommended herbicides. Kentucky's recommendations can be found at www.uky.edu/Ag/Forage. Be sure to review herbicide labels before reseeding to avoid residues and remember that new seedlings can be sensitive. The safest thing is not to spray until grass seedlings are well established. Check label recommendations on the herbicide and talk to your county extension agent to get information specific to your location.
  • Rotate horses between pastures. This will enhance stand recovery, interrupt parasite cycles, help grasses out-compete weeds and increase grass growth and carrying capacity. Smith said carrying capacity for horses on pastures year round during an average year runs at two acres per horse on the best soils, up to five to six acres per horse on farms with less desirable soil and/or less available forage.
  • Contact your county extension agent for assistance with all general agricultural questions.

Finally, Smith said it's not too late for farms to sign up with the Horse Pasture Evaluation Program. His team will continue to evaluate horse pastures for the next couple of months and then start up again in March 2008. The program is generally available to horse farms in Fayette, Bourbon, Woodford, Scott, Jessamine, and Clark counties, but can be opened up on a limited basis to counties outside these five central bluegrass counties. Participation in the program is on a first-come, first-served basis, and the cost is $750.

Since its inception, UK's Pasture Evaluation Program, housed in the College of Agriculture's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, has worked with approximately 50 area horse farms and analyzed more than 3,700 acres of horse pastures.

The program, which gets its foundational research funding support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service's Forage-Animal Production Unit based in Lexington, provides each farm with a comprehensive assessment of its pastures, including soil type and soil productivity, types and ratios of grasses and weeds present in each pasture, an estimation of forage available, and a laboratory evaluation of endophyte (a fungus commonly found in tall fescue) and associated levels of ergovaline (a compound toxic to pregnant mares).

Enhancements rolled out this year include increased acreage (up to an entire farm if requested), a fecal egg count pilot study, a grazing distribution map, and follow-up measurements of ergovaline. The team providing pasture evaluation includes Smith and Tom Keene, UK hay specialist.

More information can be found by visiting www.uky.edu/Ag/Forage.  

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