Horses are tough on their forage; they stomp, cut up and pull out the grasses in their pastures. This makes pastures difficult to maintain. But, with strategic reseeding and mowing, the horses in your care can still find greener pastures.
Many horse owners, seeing a green pasture, assume that it is healthy and providing a good nutritional meal for their animals. But over time, the botanical composition of the pasture can change. A pasture originally seeded with orchard grass may gradually be overtaken by crab-grass. The new forage might still provide required nutrients, but it might not. So, suggests Dr. Chris Teutsch of Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Blackstone, Va., “take a survey of the plants and see if you have desirable species in your pasture. Also, if you have four to six inches of space between your plants, then you may need to think about reseeding. Typically, bare soil doesn’t stay bare very long; it usually becomes weeds.”
Before reseeding, analyze why your pasture deteriorated in the first place. This will help you prevent changes from recurring every few years. Is the forage species well adapted to your area? For example, trying to establish a timothy pasture in southern Virginia won’t work. It will grow for about a year, but timothy likes a more moderate temperature in the summer and will die out.
Other things to consider are good grazing techniques and fertility management. Are too many horses using the pasture? Have you had the soil tested? What nutrients are missing? If these problems aren’t resolved before reseeding, you might be wasting your time.
WHEN TO RESEED
The best times to reseed a pasture are spring and fall. For spring seeding, you should plant about four weeks before the last average killing frost. The seedlings will germinate and the frost won’t hurt them. For fall plantings, seed approximately four to six weeks before the average killing frost.
Do you have problems with weeds? Then a fall planting is best. Explains Dr. Teutsch, “Species like crab- and goose-grass produce a tremendous amount of seed. If you reseed in the spring, shortly after your seeds germinate the weedy species will, too, and your seeds will have a lot of competition. Therefore, I would suggest doing your renovation in the fall. Summer annual weeds are pretty much done by fall, and they won’t germinate until the soil temperature gets up around 60 to 65 degrees the next spring. This will give your grass species a chance to get going in the fall and early spring.”
PREPARING THE PASTURE
Horses are notorious for damaging pastures. In addition to their destructive grazing habits, their hooves compact the soil, which makes it difficult for forage to thrive. You may have to till more deeply to loosen soil in compacted horse pastures. Once tilled, the soil bed should be rather fine, with no clumps in it. “However,” notes Dr. Teutsch, “it is critical that it be firm. Forages tend to have very small seeds, and if the seed bed is soft then when you place the seeds in the soil, the seeds will go too deep and not come up. The general rule that I use is when you walk across the seed bed, if you are sinking in past the soles of your shoes, then you need to re-firm that seed bed.”
Should you completely reseed your pasture or simply thicken what is already there? If you still have some desirable plants, then save yourself the time and expense needed for a total renovation. If weeds are a problem, you first need to suppress their growth. One method is to overgraze the pasture. This will weaken the plants until they can’t come back. You can also use herbicides, but be sure to use one that will kill just the weeds and not the forage. Once the weeds are under control, drag your tillage implement through the pasture—the goal is to disturb about 40 percent of the sod (vegetation) and give the new seedlings a better chance at germinating. Then apply the seed and drag or roll it into the soil.
If you reseed the entire pasture, place the seeds about 1/2 inch deep (for smaller seeds such as bermuda grass, plant between 1/8 to 1/4 inch deep). It takes from 18 to 24 months for the new sod to become established, although horses can be turned out for light grazing once the plants are well-anchored (i.e., horses can’t pull up the stalk when they graze).
The main purpose of mowing is to encourage grazing in unused areas of the pasture. Horses are spot grazers; they’ll choose an area and keep returning to it while refusing to graze in areas where they have urinated and defecated. Dr. Teutsch explains that the best time to mow is “when the shortest area, the area they are grazing the most, is at the desired height. So if your target height is four inches, when that overgrazed area is at four inches, it is time to mow. Mowing will help the other areas by making them more palatable to the horses. After mowing, drag with a harrow to knock some of the dung out, to encourage horses to graze where they refused before.”
With proper maintenance, including reseeding and mowing, your pastures will remain full of good nutrients. While the maintenance can be time-consuming and expensive, a neglected pasture will cost even more to rejuvenate later.
Seed Type by Region
Grasses: Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass, endophyte-free perennial ryegrass, creeping red fescue
Legumes: medium white clover, birdsfoot trefoil
Annual pastures:?annual ryegrass, fall rye, oats
Note: For both the transition zone and the northeast: Timothy is often added in horse pasture mixtures because it is desired for horse hay, but it is not persistent under horse grazing.
The Transition Zone (upper south/lower midwest)
Grasses: Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass, endophyte-free tall fescue
Legumes: white clover
Annual pastures: annual ryegrass, fall rye
Note: The majority of pastures in the transition zone contain endophyte-infected tall fescue, which is a concern for pregnant mares. Though rarely planted on purpose for horses, it is the most persistent grass in this region.
Lower South (southern half of Alabama and similar latitudes in nearby states)
Grasses: bermudagrass and bahiagrass
Winter Annuals: annual ryegrass, rye, wheat and oats
Cool-season grasses: smooth brome, orchardgrass, intermediate and pubescent wheatgrass, tall fescue
Warm-season grasses: big bluestem, indiangrass, sideoats grama, blue grama, sand lovegrass
Legumes: alfalfa, red clover, birdsfoot trefoil, white clover
Annual pastures: annual and Italian ryegrass, pearl millet, oats, wheat, rye, triticale, barley, berseem clover
Note: Use endophyte-free fescue when pasture will be a primary source of feed, especially with pregnant or lactating mares; use endophyte-infected fescue for pastures used primarily as exercise lots without pregnant or lactating mares.
Grasses: orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, endophtye-free tall fescue, bermudagrass
Legumes: white clover, red clover, alfalfa
Annual pastures: annual ryegrass, triticale/wheat
Note: The western states consist of a wide range of eco-types, from searing deserts to cool rainforests. Seed choices will depend upon availability of water.
Our thanks to the following for their assistance with this information: Dr. Ray Smith, University of Kentucky; Dr. Donald Ball, Auburn University; Dr. Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska; Dr. Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin and Dr. Dan Putnam, University of California – Davis