by Marilyn Munzert
Most buyers of horse properties carefully consider the condition of the barn, outbuildings, fencing, stalls and acreage, yet neglect to inspect the one thing their horses care about most — the pasture. That’s because most horse owners know far more about horses than they do about fields. They assume that if green vegetation covers the ground, their horses will eat it. To some extent, this is true. However, if property owners have no knowledge of the desirable plants in the pasture and make no effort to maintain and nourish them, inedible weeds and bare spots will overrun paddocks faster than Secretariat ran the Belmont.
A pasture management plan results in a lush pasture with few weeds that supports the nutritional requirements of the number of horses grazing on it. “Managing” your pasture sounds time consuming and complicated, but it simply involves establishing a plan and putting in some initial labor. Then all you’ll need to do is keep up with routine maintenance.
The benefit of growing and maintaining good pasture far outweigh the effort you’ll have to expend. The most obvious benefit of a healthy pasture is that it can feed your horses during the growing season and save you the purchase of supplementary hay or concentrated feed. And, if you have plenty of forage inside your fences, your horses will be less inclined to lean on them or even think about what’s outside. Horses are not bored when they can graze at will or run and play on cushiony footing that will help them build strong muscles, legs and hooves. Daily turnout promotes better respiration, and grazing horses develop fewer sharp points on their molars than those fed primarily hay or concentrates.
So, where do you begin and just how much work is this? You’ll find most of the tasks associated with pasture management are at the outset. After desirable plants become more abundant, fewer weeds take root, and you’ll only need to maintain what you have. Your first step is to get information relevant to your locale, with the help of agricultural experts that virtually every state employs.
Locating your county or regional agricultural extension agent will help you get an education in pasture management specific to your area. Ask whether an agent can visit your farm. In many areas, ag agents make free visits to local farms to help with collection of soil samples and to identify pasture plants — the good, the bad and the toxic. Ag agents are also a wealth of information about pasture about pasture seed mixes that thrive in your area, feed mill locations and workers who perform contract farm services. They have handout materials available and access to county soil maps that can be used to help state soil labs make recommendations for your specific property. Ag agents can also refer you to statewide experts on horse and pasture management.
Viewed from a distance, most pastures look better than they actually are. Walk your pastures to determine what’s there and what shouldn’t be. This is where an ag agent can be of most help, especially if you can’t tell the difference between alfalfa and clover. If you’re on your own, many plant identifications resources can be found in reference books or online.
If your pasture has deteriorated to the point where it is overrun with weeds, the grasses are sparse and there are so many bare spots that it looks like it has mange, your best bet is to use a no-till drill and reseed. This wide implement efficiently deposits both seed and fertilizer in one pass and allows for more uniform growth of the grass/legume mix that you choose. One cautionary note, weed seeds can lie dormant in soil for decades, and they are immune to herbicides because they have not germinated. An application of a pre-emergent weed killer is beneficial before planting the field.
The easiest, cheapest way to renovate pasture is by over-seeding, which you can easily do yourself if you have only a few acres, a garden tractor and broadcast spreader. In cool climates, take advantage of the spring thaw by spreading seed to your pasture on top of snow or damp soil that is undergoing the freeze/thaw process. As the snow melts, seeds gradually embed in the ground germinate when the soil temperatures rise.
Soil is not simply black, brown, sandy, soggy or hard. It is the constantly evolving growing environment for your pasture. A soil test identifies acidic levels and fertility, both of which directly impact pasture quality. Because plants require 16 essential elements to flourish, and 13 of them come directly from soil, you need to know what type of soil you have and whether in needs supplementation.
After you know what is deficient in your pasture, you can determine what additives, such as lime and/or fertilizer to apply. For maximum nutrients in plants, the soil pH level should be in a range of 6 to 6.5. You can maintain the proper pH level by applying agricultural-grade ground limestone to your pasture. Fertilizer provides essential nutrients, and in most cases, nitrogen is the key element to add to a pasture, as it is crucial for growing healthy plant. The best time to fertilize is annually in the fall when it will benefit existing pants and build a strong root system for the next growing season.
After transforming your pasture into a healthy stand of grasses and legumes, you need to be diligent about keeping it that way. Restoration is not a one-time project but rather a process, as pasture quality regresses with lack of attention.
On pastures continually grazed throughout the growing season, removing manure piles or spreading them by harrowing or dragging is important. Harrowing also helps “dethatch” your pasture, which increases water percolation and roughs the ground surface for over seeding. Spring harrowing should be a regular practice because it pulls out dead weeds and thatch left standing over the winter.
Periodic mowing is also an important part of maintaining good pasture. That probably sounds off, considering that horses are the ultimate “mowers.” Yet they are selective, spotty grazers. Every grazed pasture eventually becomes uneven, with weeds growing taller than desirable plants and proliferating in ungrazed areas around elimination spots. Mowing keeps weeds in a more palatable, formative stage that prevents them from going to seed. Don’t forget to mow under fences and around posts because even if you don’t have an electric fence that can short out from wet weeds, you don’t want to provide cover for insects.
Although it may seem as if you are just adding one more task to your long list of horse chores, pasture management not only pays off financially but also contributes to the physical and emotional well-being of your horses.