University of Kentucky Pasture Evaluation Program Enjoys Continued Success

The University of Kentucky initiated its Pasture Evaluation Program in 2005, which has since grown along with its number of participants. Sponsored by the UK Equine Initiative, the program began in response to the Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome epidemic that swept through Central Kentucky in 2001. The program has maintained several farms as regular clients throughout the years while attracting new clients each year.

In 2010 UK made three significant changes to its Pasture Evaluation Program. First, the UK Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (formerly LDDC), under the leadership of Cynthia Gaskill, DVM, PhD, clinical veterinary toxicologist at the UKVDL, and Lori Smith (head chemist), now offers ergovaline testing. This partnership with UKVDL provides fescue toxicology results for farms and a great network of professionals for the program and its participants to access. In 2011 work with UKVDL's toxicology department will continue and grow into a research and testing relationship.

The second change came in April 2010, when Ray Smith, PhD, forage extension specialist, announced the program would be expanded from its traditional Central Kentucky boundaries to include the entire state. This provides outreach opportunities for those not in the area and valuable data from many regions of the state. In 2010 evaluations were performed outside of the Bluegrass region in Gallatin, Henderson, and Russell counties.

Finally, the program began testing farm-harvested bedding for tall fescue toxicity. Many farms in recent years have allowed certain fields to grow over and have then harvested the material to use for bedding. While this practice saves the farm in bedding costs, it can potentially expose broodmares to toxic levels of ergovaline, the chemical found in infected tall fescue that is responsible for early pregnancy loss, late term abortions, foaling difficulty, and poor milk production in broodmares. Because so many factors affect ergovaline levels, including stage of maturity and drying time in bedding material, testing is the only way to know what type of risk is associated with material. This program is largely possible due to the support from UKVDL.

By the end of 2010, the UK Pasture Evaluation Program conducted 91 evaluations, representing more than 14,000 acres of land. With many pastures in the state in poor condition, more farms will be looking to help their pastures recover. Extension services in general already have seen a marked increase of farms looking to them for help and support. Along with county agents and extension programs/field days, the Pasture Evaluation Program is a valuable tool to help managers and owners make better pasture management decisions.

Pasture Evaluation Program Details

Pasture evaluations are a detailed look at a pasture's composition and include grass and weed species identification. From the information gathered by a trained technician, Smith then makes recommendations for each individual field. These recommendations are listed in a notebook that includes detailed data results from the farm, maps of fields sampled, soil information, and a host of University publications that cover all topics from establishment to hay quality and internal parasite control.

Pasture evaluation participants have two packages to chose from. The standard package includes tall fescue sampling to determine a percent infection and ergovaline concentration. This package is ideal for large farms and breeding operations. The small farm package is priced more conservatively and excludes tall fescue lab analysis. This package is designed for small farms or boarding facilities that do not breed mares.

After Smith completes the farm evaluation, he or program coordinator Tom Keene present a comprehensive binder containing all data, recommendations, satellite maps, and publications to the host farm.

For more information or to enroll in the Pasture Evaluation Program, visit and click on "horse links." Direct questions to Krista Cotten at 859/257-0597 or; or Tom Keene at 859/257-3144 or

Ray Smith, PhD, is a forage extension specialist at the University of Kentucky. Krista Cotton is the assistant coordinator of UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program.

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