Ag Notes: Tips for establishing, managing horse pasture

March 30, 2004|JERRY LITTLE

Kentucky is noted for its grass pastures and horses. Both are important to our commonwealth.

Pastures supply nutrients, provide hoof support for exercise, control erosion, and make our commonwealth even more picturesque. Horses provide a lot of pleasure, whether to someone riding for pleasure or as a winner in the show ring or at a racetrack, or grazing in your pasture.

Well-managed pastures can supply a significant percentage of a horse's daily nutrient needs. Pasture forage plants can easily be reduced or destroyed because horses graze closer than cattle and tend to repeatedly graze the same areas. Horses' hooves can damage pastures, even those with grasses that form tight sods. High-traffic areas are the hardest to maintain. These include areas around gates, fence lines, hay feeders and barns.

It is important to follow proper establishment and management practices to improve the value of grass and increase the value of pastures to horses. Practices include proper fertilization, species and variety selection, date, rate and method, and competition control. Among the management practices are improved grazing plans or rotations, periodic soil testing, annual fertilization, and weed management.


A current soil test will give you research-based recommendations for lime, potassium and other nutrients, except nitrogen. The Boyle County Extension Service has information on how to properly take a soil sample. You should take pasture soil samples for testing every three to four years.

Orchardgrass is the least tolerant

Pasture grasses have varying tolerances to close grazing and traffic. Kentucky bluegrass and bermudagrass, which form tight sods, are the most tolerant. Orchardgrass is the least tolerant, and tall fescue has intermediate tolerance.

Weed competition contributes to many grass seeding failures. Suppressing by mowing or light grazing a few months might control weeds for successful establishment. Use herbicides on a newly established stand as a last resort, because they can potentially injure the seedlings.

Following proper management practices will promote vigorous, healthy plants and extend a pasture's productive life.

Divide the total pasture acreage into paddocks to establish a rotational grazing system. In most cases, this system is based on two- to four-week rest periods. The time necessary for forage re-growth and increased plant vigor varies with factors such as the stocking rate, time of year, rainfall and forage species used.

Remove horses from a pasture when tall fescue and orchardgrass are four inches in height, and when Kentucky bluegrass and bermudagrass are two inches tall.

Remember to take pregnant mares off endophyte-infected tall fescue pastures two to three months before foaling.

When the soil is wet and muddy, avoid grazing newly seeded and established stands because horses' hooves can damage the pasture.

Mow pastures after grazing

It's a good idea to mow pastures after grazing to promote more uniform, leafy growth, which is more palatable and nutritious than mature plants.

Clipping reduces pressure and the risk of eye irritation from mature seed heads. It also gives a more pleasing appearance.

You will need to apply nitrogen fertilizer annually to any predominately grass pasture. The amount necessary will depend on your yield goal for each field.

The best pasture weed control is a strong, actively growing stand of grass. Fertilization, especially nitrogen, timely mowing, and good grazing management will help reduce weed problems.

Weeds should not predominate if a pasture is properly fertilized and is not overgrazed. However, if weeds become a problem, apply the appropriate herbicide to the infested areas. Always read and follow herbicide label recommendations.

We have several related publications at the extension office. Topics include lime and fertilizer recommendations, evaluating fertilizer recommendations, grain and forage crop guide, renovating hay and pasture fields, establishing forage crops, alfalfa, red clover, orchardgrass, tall fescue, timothy and white clover.

Jerry Little is Boyle County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.

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