This article was originally published in 2016, but now is the time to prepare your pastures for the grazing season. Please enjoy this refresher on pasture preparation, and be sure to check out our other pasture management resources.
Your neighbors enjoy their view of your place: horses frolicking on green fields and eating healthy forage from the pasture grass swaying in the breeze. You’re pleased too, because you know your pocketbook is benefiting from reduced hay bills. The environment is happy; abundant pasture plants are putting the nutrients from horse manure to good use, nutrients that might otherwise wash off your property and possibly cause contamination issues.
That’s your farm, right? Or, does your pasture resemble a weedy confinement area, one that turns into mud from the lightest rain?
Some of our favorite “think big, spend small” pasture practices can transform pastures and keep them in tip-top shape. Here they are:
Aerating greatly benefits grass plants by allowing air and nutrients to reach their root zone. Plants that live in soil that has become compacted by snow, rain and horse or vehicle traffic need help to enable their roots to reach much needed moisture and nutrients later in the season. Plus, aerating now can equate to savings in irrigation costs later on.
Addressing bare spots and thin areas by overseeding with a pasture mix, one that works well in your climate will: increase forage, cut down on hay costs and keep weeds at bay. Choose a pasture mix specific for horses and one that has at least two species of pasture seeds. Clover in a mix is not generally recommended for horse pastures.
Assess Your Soil
Testing your soil will help to determine your pH level, and if you need to add lime, along with identifying nutrient deficiencies your pasture plants need to grow. It will save you money in the long run to test your soil to avoid adding unneeded fertilizers. If soil is acidic, nutrients can become ‘bound’ in the soil and cannot be utilized by plants. Often, applying lime (if you have a low pH) will create a flush of plant growth, as nutrients in soil are released. Many universities have soil testing labs that make soil testing an easy task - just mail in your sample and you get the results generally in about a week. Many conservation districts also offer a soil testing service.
While adding fertilizer may be unnecessary, using lime is crucial in areas where soil is acidic (has a low pH). When soil pH is low, nutrients in the soil cannot be utilized by the plant, and beneficial organisms are not as active as they could be. It is always more cost effective to correct your pH by adding lime, before addressing fertilizer needs. Use a naturally occurring limestone, or an agricultural grade lime such as calpril® or dolopril® (don’t use a chemically produced, caustic lime such as hydrated lime or quicklime). April can be a good month to apply some of your yearly lime requirements, as typically there is enough rain to help work it into the root zone.
Tip Sheet: Five Keys to Better Pastures
As soon as your soils are no longer saturated and are safe to drive equipment on, begin spreading your winter supply of compost. Spread in a thin layer, about 1/4 " to 1/2" thick on pastures, lawns or gardens, but only when plants are actively growing. Some of the many benefits of composting horse manure and utilizing it on your pastures include:
Improved soil structure.
Increased moisture retention.
A slow release of nitrogen that plants can utilize as a fertilizer.
An increase in the presence of microorganisms in soil, helping nutrients be more easily taken up by plant roots.
Encourages earthworms and other macro-organisms whose tunneling helps increase water infiltration and who also amend soil with worm castings.
Check first for poisonous weeds like tansy ragwort, which is coming up now in the rosette stage. Use gloves, pull and bag up tansy, and send it to the landfill. Tansy and other noxious weeds can go to seed even after they are cut, so it is important to remove them if they are flowering and also before mowing. Less noxious weeds can be kept under control by mowing before they go to seed, allowing pasture plants to crowd them out.
Tip Sheet: Natural Solutions for Fertilizers, Weed Control and Pest Control
Picky equines will run around and choose the “best” eating spots and eat at these favorite ‘snack bars’ over and over, leaving the rest of a pasture to go to seed. Utilizing rotational grazing ensures pastures are evenly eaten and remain productive. Here’s a few more tips:
Never graze below three inches, once 50 percent of a plant is eaten, its roots stop growing, making it less productive.
Do not allow grass plants to go to seed; this will end their growth cycle and they will stop producing tillers (leaves), reducing your pasture forage for the season.
Mow after rotating horses out of a pasture to set up a nice, even growth on your next grass crop.
Pick up manure or harrow once you’re done with a pasture area to spread out the nutrients.
Have a sacrifice area available for times when you need to rest your pastures. This is especially critical when grass plants go dormant during drought or in the winter. Dormant grass plants quickly become overgrazed and can die off if they are allowed to be chomped to the ground.
Happy grazing and great growing!