Simple Steps to Improve Pasture Management

Farm managers new to pasture management can take simple steps to improve pastures and the quality and quantity of forage available to your horse.


Pasture management can be a full-time job. Many researchers, consultants, and farm supply store operators spend a significant portion of their time studying and surveying pastures to improve management techniques. However, improving horse pastures doesn’t require a PhD. Farm managers new to pasture management can take simple steps to improve pastures and the quality and quantity of forage available to your horse. More experienced managers can take advantage of advanced concepts to reach their farm’s maximum productivity. In this article we’ll focus on three types of management options: simple, intermediate, and advanced.


Nitrogen is essential for plant growth and cannot be stored in the soil; therefore, property owners must apply it regularly. For cool-season pastures, spring nitrogen applications increase spring growth and should only be applied to fields used for hay production or heavily stocked pastures, as spring nitrogen can result in excess pasture growth. Fall nitrogen helps stretch the grazing season into winter and encourages earlier green-up in the spring.

Note: If you live in an area of the country where bermudagrass predominates, apply nitrogen during late spring. Legumes such as red and white clover can capture nitrogen from the air and inject it into the soil (called nitrogen fixation). Maintaining clovers in pastures allows grasses to utilize this “free nitrogen” year-round. Apply other soil amendments, including phosphorus, potassium, and lime, as needed according to a soil test. Have pastures soil sampled every three to four years and hay fields every year.

Simple: One fall nitrogen application. Apply 40-60 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre in the fall (late September to late October in Kentucky).

Intermediate: Split fall nitrogen application. Apply 30-40 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre in mid-fall (around the first of September in Kentucky) and again six weeks later. Split applications mean that more nitrogen is used for growth and less is lost to leaching or volatilization.

Advanced: Overseeding clovers into a pasture provides highly nutritious grazing for horses and free nitrogen to surrounding grasses. Generally, pastures with 30% clovers do not require nitrogen applications.

For more information regarding soil fertility in horse pastures, see Soil Sampling and Nutrient Management in Horse Pastures (AGR-200) at

Pasture Composition

What is in your pasture is as important as how much pasture you have. Healthy pastures can survive and maintain productivity though moderate periods of drought, heavy rain, and extreme summer temperatures. Mixed pastures can better adapt to changing conditions, as one species might perform better in one scenario than another. For example, Kentucky bluegrass greens up earlier in the spring than tall fescue, but tall fescue will stay green and grow longer into a hot dry spell in the summer. Therefore, a mixture of the two will provide more grazing than a pure stand of either. Weeds compete with grasses for space, sunlight, nutrients, and water. Weed competition will often shade out grass seedlings or grazed plants. Controlling weeds in a pasture will greatly improve forage quality and quantity.

Simple: Rest. Resting a pasture for several weeks can give grasses a chance to recover from grazing and better compete with weeds.

Intermediate: Overseed or herbicide application. Overseeding to introduce more grasses into thin pastures will thicken up the stand, while herbicides will reduce the weeds present, allowing grasses to grow and spread. Always read and follow label instructions when applying herbicides.

Advanced: Develop an herbicide/seeding schedule. Improving pasture composition requires removing weeds and replacing them with desirable grasses. Timing of herbicide applications and seeding vary depending on pasture species, time of year, and herbicide used; therefore, plan carefully to increase your chances of success. All herbicides require a waiting period after spraying and before seeding.

Find information on seeding or herbicide applications in horse pastures at Establishing Horse Pastures (ID-147) at or Broadleaf Weeds of Kentucky Pastures (AGR-207) at (Kentucky only).

Rotational Grazing

Rotational grazing is a concept frequently used by other livestock operations, but less common in horse outfits. Rotations provide grasses with a chance to rest and recover from grazing and increase pasture productivity. In cool-season pastures, rotate horses out of a pasture when grasses reach 3-4 inches in height. Horses can be returned to graze again when pasture has reached 8-10 inches (6-8 inches for predominantly Kentucky bluegrass pastures).

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

Simple: Rotate between existing pastures. Pasture rotations to don’t have to be complicated; when able, give a pasture a rest (even just a few weeks helps), and use a different one during that time.

Intermediate: Subdivide pastures with temporary electric fence. This is particularly useful for large pastures. Set up fencing in a way that allows you to continue using the gate and water source already in the pasture. If your horses have never been around electric fencing, make sure to acclimate them to it by putting it part way across the pasture and letting them investigate for a few days before fencing off a portion completely.

Advanced: Setting up a grazing system includes multiple paddocks to move animals through and likely utilizes several types of forages. These systems require intensive management, but allow maximum utilization of the pasture growth.

UK publication Rotational (ID-143) provides excellent information and can be found at

Mud Management

Mud is a significant issue on horse farms large and small. Because horses are spot grazers, they will often overgraze some areas while leaving other areas untouched. High-traffic areas, such as gates, water, and feed areas, will also become bare. Bare areas will become muddy with sufficient rains, posing a danger to horses and humans alike. Additionally, these areas are unsightly and likely to suffer from erosion.

Simple: Tape off a high-traffic area with electric fence and allow the area to recover over time.

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

Intermediate: In addition to taping off the area, seeding perennial ryegrass in the early spring or early fall will provide some quick cover and reduce the muddy conditions. Perennial ryegrass will germinate in seven to 10 days, provide cover in just a few weeks, and survive one to two years, depending on grazing pressure.

Advanced: Installing a high-traffic area pad or drylot to provide wet weather footing in key areas can greatly reduce mud as well as feeding costs on a farm. High-traffic area pads consist of geotextile filter fabric and several layers of rock packed into a firm surface. This will form something similar to concrete, but not as hard or expensive. Use high-traffic area pads around gates, waterers, and feed and hay areas to reduce mud. Clear pads of manure on occasion to increase their longevity.

More information can be found in Temporary Fencing for Horse Pastures (ID-165) at, High Traffic Area Pads for Horses (ID-164) at or Using Dry Lots to Conserve Pastures and Reduce Pollution Potential at


The money and effort required for pasture improvements might seem cumbersome; but they don’t have to be. You can take many simple to improve pasture situations, often with little investment or effort required. But recognize that pasture improvements will never be complete; this is an ongoing process. Improving pasture management will reduce the need for stored feeds, such as hay and grain, while providing horses with quality forages, good footing, and a beautiful living space that you can enjoy too.

Krista Lea, MS, coordinator of UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program within the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; and Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist within UK’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, provided this information.

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