Pasture Management 101: Starting a New Pasture from Scratch

Pasture Management 101: Starting a New Pasture from Scratch

In general, the recommended stocking rate is one mature horse per 2 to 3 acres of land.

Photo: Adam Spradling/The Horse

In the first two installments of our pasture management series we talked about pasture grasses and renovating established pastures. However, occasionally horse owners will find that it’s ultimately a better option to start the process from scratch. Factors to consider when doing so include facility design, rotational grazing, recommended seeding practices, and toxic weeds.

Plan Your Paddocks and Pastures

When designing a pasture for your facility, keep in mind the total number of horses your land can support.

“Many horse owners want to have pasture provide a majority of their horse’s nutrition, but often overstock the land,” said Jennie Ivey, MS, PhD, assistant professor and extension equine specialist at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. Thus, they “use turnout time strictly for exercise while providing additional hay” for nutrition, she said.

In general, the recommended stocking rate—which allows for a horse to graze pasture without stressing the grass stand and prevents overgrazing—is one mature horse per 2 to 3 acres of land. While pastures in some areas might be able to maintain horses on less land, keep in mind that varying weather patterns, soil fertility, manure presence, and weeds will impact how much forage is available for the horse to consume.

“Consider implementing a rotational grazing system with a heavy-use area,” Ivey said. “Divide the total acreage for pasture use into one- to two-acre plots, with access to a central heavy use or ‘sacrifice area.’ ”

This system allows owners to let horses graze one plot until the grass is about 3 inches in height, then move to another pasture to allow the first plot to rest. Owners can continue rotating horses through the remainder of the plots (if available) until the first pasture reaches 8 inches in height, at which point the cycle can begin again.

Horses should always have access to the heavy-use area, making it a good place to provide water and shelter. As a bonus, this heavy-use area gives owners a turnout paddock if horses need to be kept off pasture, for instance, after heavy rain to prevent grass from being torn up or to limit grazing time.

Plant Your Pasture

Once you’ve designed your pasture layouts, conduct a soil test to help you select the ideal forage species for your region and soil type.

Then, you’ll need to decide how you’ll go about planting the new stand of forage: through conventional or no-till seeding practices.

“Conventional seeding requires preparation of the seedbed by plowing and disking the field to mechanically kill plants that may compete with new seedlings,” Ivey explained. “Once the seedbed has been prepared, then seed can be broadcast or drilled and cultipacked for optimal growth results.

“Alternatively, no-till seeding uses herbicides to remove any competition within the pasture,” she continued. “Then, a no-till drill is used to place the seed in contact with the soil at the appropriate depth.”

Ensure you plant (or have your pastures planted) at the proper time for the species of grass or legume you’ve selected. This is usually during spring or fall.

Other factors to consider include planting the right amount of seed, planting when moisture is available, and planting seed at the proper depth to ensure establishment of a good stand and plant survival. Your county extension agent or district conservationist can provide you with information on appropriate seeding dates, rates, and depths for your area.

Give the New Pasture Time to Grow, and Check for Weeds

Once you’ve planted your pastures, don’t let your horses enjoy them just yet, said Dewitt Simerly, a district conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service.

“When establishing pastures be certain to keep horses off the pasture area until the grasses can become established then control competition from weeds or undesirable vegetation,” he said.

Finally, inspect your pastures regularly for presence of weeds and plants that are toxic to horses and other hazards, such as broken fences, and have a plan in place for correcting the situation. Ivey advised owners to keep and special eye out to the following toxic weeds:

  • Buttercup (Ranunculus species, widespread across the country);
  • Jimsonweed (Datura stamonium, widespread across the country);
  • Nightshade family (Solanum species, across northeast, mid-west, southwest and southeast regions of the United States);
  • Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana, eastern United States); and
  • Poison hemlock and water hemlock (Conium maculatum and Cicuta species, widespread across the country).

Herbicides can be used to kill weeds but caution should be used to spray weeds at the right time and with the correct product and amount to be most effective.

But, “the most effective means to prevent weed presence is the establishment and maintenance of a good pasture stand,” Ivey said.

About the Author

Hope Ellis-Ashburn, MS

Hope Ellis-Ashburn, MS, lives with her husband and daughter near Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the family raises Black Angus cattle and hay on her husband’s family’s farm, which has been in operation for over a century. She is a former Extension agent, a current high school teacher, and has owned horses for more than 30 years. She currently owns a half-Arabian mare named Sally. She began writing freelance articles three years ago, authored The Story of Kimbrook Arabians, and posts a range of horse-related content weekly on her blog, Red Horse on a Red Hill.

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