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Providing winning solutions for horse management and the environment since 1997

Picture Perfect Pastures

Alayne Blickle

by Alayne Blickle, Horses for Clean Water

Do you crave the satisfaction of seeing your horses frolic and graze on lush, green pastures?

May is an optimum growing month around North America, especially for grasses. A quick assessment of your pastures now can ensure they are healthy, productive and beautiful throughout summer and fall.

Last month, we talked about creating a sacrifice area to put your horses in for the benefit of your pastures. Having a sacrifice area can also be beneficial if your horses are: overweight, suffering from a metabolic disorder or need an area to move around in when pastures become overgrazed and require rest. In addition to creating a sacrifice area, this May to-do list will help ensure your pastures become picture-perfect!

Pasture Perfect: To-Do List for May

Aerate

Aerating soils is of great benefit to pasture plants. Horses are very destructive to some types of soil, such as clay. When horses walk, their weight, which can average 1000 pounds per square inch, compacts and suffocates plant roots, slowly killing pasture plants and making soils conducive for weeds to take root.

By aerating, you are putting air holes into the root zone of the grass plants, helping them to breathe. You are also enabling water to better penetrate the top layer of soil. Aerating is also helpful if you plan to over-seed. By aerating before you over-seed, you are letting some of the seeds drop into the holes, where they will have better contact with the soil and therefore a better chance to thrive.

Over-Seed

If there is still a chance of rainfall, or if you irrigate, it is not too late to over-seed. Over-seeding helps to crowd out weeds, increases the forage, makes pastures more uniform and fills in bare spots.

It’s best to choose pasture seed species that already grow well in your soil, and that are adapted to your climate. Many species, such as orchard grass and rye grass, are hardy enough to survive the dry season if established in late spring. A good pasture seed mix should have more than one variety of grass seed (or legume) for hardiness of pastures.

Horses with metabolic issues should graze on species that tend to have lower sugar, or NSC (non-structural carbohydrate) levels.

Cross-Fence and Rotate Grazing Areas

If you don’t have the means or the time to cross-fence pastures, you will be amazed at how an investment in economical step-in posts and a roll of hot tape will increase the productivity of your pastures and keep your horses happier. This quick, portable alternative to cross-fencing allows you to let horses graze on only the healthiest areas of your pasture, while letting the rest grow.

Also, by starting horses grazing in one area, and then moving them through grazing “zones,” they don’t have the access to pick and choose the best plants, which can destroy some plants while leaving others to go to seed and become dormant.

As an area is grazed down and you move your horses off of it, you give the plants a rest; a chance to recover and regrow and ultimately provide more forage. Pasture grasses need a deep root system to be able to grow productively and to hold the nutrients and water they require. When plants are grazed down to three to four inches (depending on the species), their roots shrink in size relative to height, making them less hardy. Shorter grasses = shorter roots, which are less likely to thrive.

If you want maximum productivity of your forage in summer, or during times of drought, plants that have been grazed down to three inches, and aren’t actively growing, need to be saved from grazing. You need to take your horses off pastures during this time and put them in a sacrifice area.

You can also use your sacrifice area if you notice your horses are gaining too much weight, have an insulin resistant disease or have seasonal metabolic issues. Your veterinarian should be consulted if you are unsure about the effects of fresh forage on your horses.

For compromised horses, grazing at night is often an alternative to no grazing, as plants are not actively producing sugars in the dark and therefore provide less carbohydrates to horses per mouthful of grass. Mid-morning to sunset, especially when the sun is shining, carries the highest sugar load in grasses.

Spread Compost and/or Nutrients

Spreading compost on pastures can improve the health of plants and improve soils. It will also help with any manure storage problems you might have. The most efficient way to spread compost is when horses have finished grazing an area and the grass is three to four inches high. The rule of thumb is to spread about 1/4" at a time; by the time the grass has had a chance to grow back to six or eight inches, the compost will have worked its way into the soil and the pasture will be ready for grazing again. Compost will also increase the capability of your soil to hold moisture.

If you have had a soil test done and your pastures require nutrients (fertilizers, or amendments like agricultural lime), this same method, of applying after an area is grazed, works well. You can keep grazing your livestock on untreated areas while the treated areas rest and grow.

Harrow and Mow

Harrowing, breaking up, or picking up manure will help keep pastures uniform. Horses will not generally graze around their manure piles, so eliminating them for the next grazing session will make pastures more productive. In addition, if some grasses have been left untouched, mowing after the horses are through with an area will keep all grasses growing at the same rate. Grasses that are putting energy into making seed heads, or ones that have gone to seed, will not produce more leaves (or tillers) and spread.

You can mow, spread compost and harrow after your horses have finished grazing an area. This is an efficient way to save time and manage your pastures - working on one section at a time.

Manage Weeds

Keeping weeds from going to seed is a big step in obtaining weed-free pastures. The best way to do this is to mow pastures before weeds have a chance to go to seed. Mowing also helps grasses become more productive. You will be cultivating larger grass plants to crowd out the weeds, in addition to keeping the weeds from producing seeds (and more weeds).

Any poisonous weeds, such as tansy ragwort, should be pulled and thrown away, as horses may eat them if they are left in the field. If you need to spot spray other weeds, there are alternatives to toxic chemicals that work well and don’t carry the risk of harming your animals, your water supplies or surface waters.