If we asked our horses they would probably say their idea of heaven is a huge, well kept pasture. There they can eat plenty of green grass, run and play, get fresh air and sunshine. While we don’t all have large pastures, what we do with the available space can mean the difference between a healthy grass field and a dry dirt lot. It takes year-round effort to keep pastures in top condition and with spring now upon us, it’s a great time to evaluate your fields and determine what steps you need to take.
Fields should be enclosed with safe, strong fencing. It is important to walk the fence rows frequently, looking for any damage or potential trouble spots. At the same time, especially if you have any road frontage, you may clean up trash that has gotten into the fields and look for new holes or rocks that could cause problems. Typically, the areas that receive the most traffic are by gates and around the water source. Putting down stone dust in these areas will help keep mud in check. If your water source is not automatic or fixed, periodically moving it will help spread out the wear.
Take a look at the number of pastures you have, their size and the number of horses on the property. Robert Mickel with the Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension Office states that one to two horses per acre is the common stocking rate. Rotating horses between pastures allows the fields to rest and rejuvenate and gives you time to mow and fertilize if necessary. The size of the pasture, stocking rate and weather conditions influence how long to keep horses on the pasture, but usually switch them every two to four weeks. If moving horses is not an option, splitting fields using temporary fence will allow one portion to rest. It is also advisable to have a sacrifice area. This drylot area can be used when pastures need to rest or when the footing is too sloppy due to bad weather.
High quality pasture can supply enough protein, vitamins and minerals to meet the nutritional needs of most pleasure horses. However, horses spot graze, which leads to both overgrazing and undergrazing. Overgrazing encourages weed growth while undergrazing allows plants to become too mature, making them less nutritious and palatable. Pastures should be grazed to a length of two to four inches, depending on the type of grass. Excess growth areas should be mowed to stimulate new growth. However, if the length has gotten excessive, rake and remove the clippings so they don’t kill or decrease growth. Weeds should also be properly managed (see Stable Management April 2006 issue).
As we all know from examining our pastures, horses don’t eat where their manure is, which also leads to undergrazing. Weekly manure removal is ideal, but with many horses, it is a tremendous undertaking. While some recommend dragging the pasture with a chain harrow (or equivalent) to break up the manure, that has become a controversial topic because of conflicting information about the spread of parasites. From a nutrient management perspective, dragging manure distributes nutrients more evenly throughout the pasture. However, to minimize parasite problems, only drag the pastures when the weather is dry and sunny and maintain a proper deworming program.
How do you know what needs to be done to your pastures? The best way is to have the soil tested for nutritional levels and pH. Jeff Semler, senior agent with the Washington County Maryland Extension Service, recommends testing every three years for an existing pasture or prior to completely re-establishing or installing a new pasture. A pH range between 6 and 6.5 is best. Lower than that, and lime will need to be added, while a pH of over 7.0 will tie up the nutrients.
Because of the volatility of nitrogen, a soil test doesn’t accurately measure the amount of nitrogen. Rather, needs are based on the amount of organic matter and current pasture situation. Nitrogen fertilizer may be required every year in predominantly grass pastures. Applying fertilizer and lime is best done after the pasture has been grazed or clipped. “Applications split throughout the pasture season encourage initial spring growth, regenerative summer growth and, most important, fall root strengthening and subsequent winter protection,” states Mickel. It is strongly recommended that horses be kept off fertilized pastures until rain has thoroughly dissolved the fertilizer into the soil.
If your pastures are looking a bit sparse in the grass category, you may need to lay down some seed (see sidebar). Use high quality grass seed that is weed free. A mix of both cool and warm season grasses will supply you with consistent growth through the seasons. According to Mickel, cool-season grasses, such as timothy, perennial ryegrass, bromegrass and bluegrass, provide early grazing in the spring, early summer and the cooler times of the fall. Warm season species, including legumes, will grow during the hotter, drier summer months. Make sure fescue and perennial ryegrass are endophyte free, particularly if pregnant mares will be grazing on it.
“The key to seeding pastures is soil-to-seed contact,” said Semler. The best way to seed grasses is via drilling or slit seeding. Broadcasting seed doesn’t work well because the seed doesn’t get into the soil. However, if that is your only option, try to loosen the soil with a disc, harrow or de-thatcher and then after seeding come back with a roller or cultipacker to help work the seed into the ground. It may come as a surprise to learn that the best time to seed is late summer/early fall. While you may get some growth in the spring, there is much more competition from existing plants. Because it takes about four weeks for seed to germinate, Semler says the seed should go down at least a month before the first hard frost.
Take Home Message
No question, maintaining high quality pastures is a serious task. The upkeep will keep you busy all year. While it certainly takes effort, good grass pastures are one of the healthiest options for your horses. So go on, give them their little piece of heaven.