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When and How to Re-Establish Horse Pastures

Quality pastures not only add to a farm's aesthetic value, but they are also an inexpensive way to provide horses with vital nutrients.

Photo: University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment

Every year, horse managers strive to grow lush, green pastures with minimal weeds. Quality pastures not only add to a farm's aesthetic value, but they are also an inexpensive way to provide horses with vital nutrients. Management decisions can have significant positive or negative impacts on forage quality, and when managed properly, high-quality pastures can notably reduce the need for purchased feeds.

Unfortunately, managers of small and large farms alike can become dissatisfied with their pastures for a variety of reasons. A cold winter or dry summer can leave fields in less-than-desirable conditions, or overgrazing can deplete forages, resulting in large areas of weeds and bare soil. Tall fescue can be another concern; endophyte-infected tall fescue generally increases over time and can reach dangerous levels for broodmares.

When the majority of a field becomes unsuitable, it might be time to re-establish the pasture. But before spending time and money on re-establishment, decide if it's necessary based on the following considerations. If the following criteria cannot be met, consider options such as no-till drill seeding and herbicide applications to improve your pastures.

Considerations

If 50% or more of a pastures is considered undesirable, that field is typically a good candidate for re-establishment. Undesirable areas are usually a combination of weeds, bare soil, and endophyte-infected tall fescue. Pasture re-establishment requires a rest period for forage growth, so horses will need to be removed from the pasture for several months. If your pasture meets this criteria, you can follow these steps to a successful renovation.

Advanced Planning

A good management rule is to always plan in advance. In Kentucky and surrounding states, cool-season grasses such as bluegrass, orchardgrass, and perennial ryegrass are best established in the fall. It is important to not let the pasture go to seed the year of re-establishment. This is especially important if you have mostly weeds and/or tall fescue.

Two weeks or more after the last glyphosate application (late August to mid-September for Kentucky), re-seed the pasture.

Photo: University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment

Spray with Glyphosate

Spray first with a high rate of glyphosate (i.e., Roundup) in early summer. Optimal spraying time is climate-dependent; a farm advisor can answer questions regarding proper spraying dates. In Central Kentucky and surrounding areas, late June is typically a good time. As with any herbicide application, always follow label instructions and precautions. Also, glyphosate works best when sprayed on pastures at least 6 inches tall, rather than right after they have been closely mowed. Once the pasture dies back, mow it as close as possible to allow the dead grass and weeds to break down faster.

If excessive weeds are the main reason you're renovating your pasture, one application of glyphosate might be sufficient for most types of weeds. If tall fescue or nimblewill are present, a second spray at a high rate will be required. Apply the second application of glyphosate six weeks after the first application. Again, time will vary with location, but for Central Kentucky this is usually early August.

Seed the Pasture

Two weeks or more after the last glyphosate application (late August to mid-September for Kentucky), re-seed the pasture. For optimal establishment, use the following management recommendations:

  1. Apply any needed lime and fertilizer. Soil testing is essential to determine the amount of fertilizer required for healthy plant growth. Contact your county extension agent for more information on soil testing.
  2. Select a high-quality seed. High-quality seed has high rates of germination and is free of contaminants. Select a variety that has been proven to be a top performer under your location’s conditions. Many states have forage variety testing programs. In Kentucky, visit uky.edu/Ag/Forage/ForageVarietyTrials2.htm for a variety of test reports from the last 12 years.
  3. Use proper seeding rates. Seeding rate is determined by the forage being sown, and can be found in Establishing Horse Pastures.
  4. Use the best technique to seed. For complete renovation, seed into a prepared seedbed or killed sod using a no-till drill. Broadcast seeding without covering the seed has proven to be ineffective and therefore is not recommended. Also, seed at the proper depth. (For most forages, the proper seeding depth is ¼-½ inches.) One of the main causes of establishment failure is seeding at the wrong depth. Check that the seeder is calibrated correctly and is actually putting the seed in at the proper depth.
  5. Control competition from other grasses and weeds. This might require mowing or herbicide application once the stand has become established. Most herbicides have a waiting period of about two months or 5 inches of growth before applying on newly seeded stands. Always check herbicide labels before applying.
  6. Allow for an adequate rest period. Grazing newly-seeded pastures is another major cause of stand failure. Wait several months (six to eight months is ideal) for the pasture to become well-established before turning horses back out. Allow enough time for the stand to mature, and then take one light hay cutting or one quick grazing before adding the pasture back into your grazing system.

Grazing newly-seeded pastures is another major cause of stand failure. Wait several months (six to eight months is ideal) for the pasture to become well-established before turning horses back out.

Photo: University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment

While following best management recommendations can optimize chances for successful stand establishment, remember that establishment is weather-dependent, and events such as drought or late frost can reduce stand establishment. For this reason, never re-establish the majority of a farm in one year. For more detailed information on proper establishment techniques, see Establishing Horse Pastures.

Kelly Prince, a MS candidate; Krista Lea, MS; and Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist, all within the University of Kentucky Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, provided this information.


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