Horses are mighty, majestic beasts of beauty and while it would be nice if all of them were grazing on lush green pastures, that’s not the case for many horses. Most horse pastures are far less than lush, but establishing and maintaining productive pastures isn’t a difficult process. By following a few simple steps, most pastures can become thick, green and productive.
The average horse needs between one and two acres of good pasture for grazing. So, if you own five horses, you will need five to ten acres of pasture to adequately take care of their needs. When grazing is not possible, the average horse consumes about 17 pounds of forage (3 flakes of hay) per day, or more than 6,000 pounds per year. One acre of productive grass could easily produce that amount of forage. But on a short, thin pasture, it may take 12 to 15 acres to produce the same amount.
A pasture can become very productive if the plants are fed. When comparing feed costs to maintaining a fertile, productive pasture, a few dollars spent on soil nutrients is a wise investment. Your cheapest feed is under your horse’s hooves.
Before fertilizing, have a reputable fertilizer dealer or extension agent evaluate soil samples to determine its pH, phosphorous and potassium levels. (Note: Some horses are prone to a genetic condition called HYPP, which is triggered by excess potassium. Other conditions may be caused by soil imbalances as well.) Then the agent or dealer can recommend the best fertilizer for your pastures. Since horse pastures consist mainly of grasses, nitrogen applications will be very helpful. Generally it is best to apply up to 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre over three applications. For most regions this means 50 pounds of nitrogen in early spring, again in late May or early June and finally again in September. Also, early December is an excellent time for a late fall application to stimulate tillering, the growth of new shoots from existing roots. It is one of the best treatments for an overgrazed pasture. Fertilizer applications will ensure ample grass production all season long, keeping your pastures healthy and prolific.
Practice Rotational Grazing
Every pasture needs a break from grazing to re-grow, recover and respond to fertilizer treatments. This can be accomplished easily by breaking a pasture into two or more sub-pastures, using either temporary or permanent fencing. Ideally, horses should be rotated from one pasture to another when the pasture is grazed to 3 to 4 inches and the next pasture has grown to at least 6 to 8 inches. In the spring, there may be too much forage growing for the horses to keep up. If so, the acreage being grazed needs to be reduced using the remainder for hay or by mowing it off. However, summer rotations will be longer and supplemental hay feeding might be needed because most grasses grow more slowly during the warmer, dryer months. The more a pasture can be split, the easier it will be to manage.
Keep the Pasture Clipped
Even if you are managing your pasture well, there may still be times when the pasture gets too long or certain plants remain uneaten. Not only do horses have a “close nipping” eating habit, but they are also very selective about what and where they graze. This causes some of the pasture to be overgrazed, while the rest is under-grazed. Keeping the pasture clipped will help reduce this problem and keep the whole pasture in the vegetative, edible stage. Use the easiest, most efficient way available to mow down the tall grass, weeds and undesirable plants. Spot spraying with a selective herbicide can also be helpful for weed control.
Re-seed When Applicable
Even good pastures thin out over time. New seed should be added annually to ensure that your pastures produce good grass. Existing grasses may re-seed themselves, but they probably won’t be the ones you or your horses are looking for. Naturally, the weeds will easily re-seed and spread. Don’t wait until the weeds take over. Be proactive and regularly add quality forage seeds.
The best time to overseed is either fall or spring. Fall is preferable because there will be less weeds competing for sun and water. Ideally you should “scratch” or disturb the surface enough to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Sometimes spring is too muddy to harrow or let animals trample “hoof seed.”
In parts of the country where the ground freezes, a simple way to add new plants to your pasture is to “frost seed.” This is accomplished by overseeding when the frost is still on the ground (usually in early March). All you’ll need is a broadcast spreader and seed. Red and Ladino clovers and some grasses (especially rye grasses) are well adapted to this practice. (Note: Avoid using Alsike Clover. It has caused horses to die from “dew poisoning.”) Cool, wet spring conditions will germinate the seed.
“Not only do horses have a ‘close nipping’ eating habit, but they are also very selective about what and where they graze.”
A newly-treated pasture must be handled carefully. The seedlings will not tolerate grazing until approximately six weeks after they have emerged. When choosing seed for new pastures or for renovating existing pastures, always choose an improved, endophyte-free and alkaloid-free variety. When selecting your seed species, research Websites like www.pastureperfect.com to find out what species and varieties will work best. University forage experts, extension agents and vendors can also be very helpful.
Horses are tough on pastures, but with proper management, basic “horse-sense” and patience, you can turn horses out on successful and productive pasture.