Good pasture management requires an extensive amount of work – following are some of our suggestions on how to break down pasture management by the seasons. Some steps can be done at any time, while others should be done on a schedule. Read on for a seasonal pasture management timeline.
Many steps are involved whether you want to improve your pastures or simply maintain them so they stay lush and green for years to come. For a great primer on these concepts, read Pasture Management Basics for the Equine Owner.
Your first step should always be soil testing! Test the nutrient content of your soil every three years, using soil samples taken from multiple locations within each of your pastures, whenever the ground is not frozen. Testing kits and/or instructions are typically available from your county conservation office.
Spring green-up is the optimal time to apply Nitrogen (N) fertilizer that aids a flush of green, leafy growth. Once pastures start turning green in early spring, Nitrogen will jump-start grass growth and you will have a lush, productive pasture. Either divide the recommended amount of Nitrogen from your soil test result into 2 or 3 applications, or apply 40 – 50 pounds of Nitrogen (not fertilizer, as each fertilizer formula may contain different proportions of Nitrogen. Read the content breakdown shown on the bag label). When your pastures are sparse, or mostly weeds, concentrate on establishing grass growth before applying Nitrogen. Keep horses off the pasture after applying fertilizer, (especially Nitrogen, until one half inch of rain has washed the fertilizer off the grass.
Phosphorus and Potassium
Your soil test results may also recommend the application of specific quantities of Phosphorus (P) and/or Potassium (K) fertilizers. Apply these at any time after the first grazing, so think May or June. The soil test results you receive are typically broken into annual applications, covering a three year period, at which point the next soil test should be taken.
When recommended in the soil test results, apply Lime any time during the year. Your soil test report will tell you how much to apply. Note that application of Lime is typically applied only ONCE during the 3-year period between soil tests. Do not apply it yearly. Lime takes about 6 months to react in the soil, so plan ahead and apply it 6 months before seeding. Spring is a good time to apply Lime for a fall seeding.
Weed Control and Forage Management
Watch for the emergence of weed seedlings and try to identify them. Summer annual weeds grow in the spring and die in the fall; therefore, the best time to spray them is in the spring when they are small and tender. Select the appropriate herbicide that has demonstrated effectiveness on the weeds you have identified. Carefully read the label on the herbicide container and follow all requirements including grazing restrictions and reseeding intervals.
You can plant cool-season grass such as orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, etc. in the spring, but a fall seeding may be more successful. This is due to spring competition from weed growth pressure and approaching hot summer temperatures. New seedlings should not be grazed for one grazing season to ensure the plants become well established with deep, healthy root systems.
Regular mowing is great for pastures. Immature, leafy grass plants are high in nutritive value (carbohydrates for energy, protein) and mature stemmy grass plants with seed heads have lower nutrition but higher fiber. Regular mowing encourages the plants to replace leaves instead of going to seed. It also helps control some weeds! If using a rotational grazing system, a great time to mow is right after you switch horses to a new paddock. Never mow below 3-4”; this damages grasses and increases recovery time.
Winter is a great time to think about your pasture management and design a plan for what to accomplish in the next growing season. Renovating or reestablishing pastures is often a multi-year process. Pull up a map of your farm and consider your pasture layout.
- Can you change anything to make it more efficient?
- Do you need to add laneways or stress lots?
- If you are interested in rotational grazing, think about which pastures you will rotate between or split into smaller paddocks.
- Can all of your horses go out together in one group or will you need multiple grazing systems?
Price out any projects for the coming year (reseeding, building a stress lot, fencing, etc). Contact experts and agencies for technical design and engineering assistance. If possible, keep horses off pastures during the winter. Even though the grass is not growing, horses will nibble everything down to the ground. This damages the perennial grass plant, resulting in a longer recovery time in the spring. Additionally, horses’ hooves slice through the soil in wet conditions, damaging root systems and further slowing spring recovery.
A stress lot would be an ideal place to turn horses out during the winter, or designate one pasture as the “winter pasture,” knowing that it will need to be renovated in the spring. If your stress lots get very muddy in the winter and spring, look into installing heavy use pads, which improve drainage dramatically.
Avoid spreading manure in the winter when there is snow cover, or the ground is frozen as plants that are not growing do not absorb the nutrients in manure. If your location requires it, winter is a good time to review your Manure Management Plan for changes, or write one if you don’t have one. Every farm with livestock needs a plan.
Again, keep horses off the pastures until they have recovered and grown back from winter. A good guideline is to wait until there is 5” to 6” of new growth before grazing. Introduce horses to spring grass gradually as large amounts of any new feed can upset your horse’s gut. The new spring grasses contain a lot of sugar that can cause laminitis and founder. Start them off with 15 minutes a day, and gradually increase until they are grazing for your target turnout time. If you have horses with metabolic issues such as Cushing’s Disease, Equine Metabolic Syndrome, or are laminitis-prone, remember that early spring grasses are highest in non-structural carbohydrates all year.
Once horses are acclimated to spring grass, it’s time to start your grazing rotation. Start grazing a pasture when grasses have reached 8-10 inches, and move horses when grasses are 4-5 inches tall. If this takes longer than a week, you could add horses to the group or use temporary fencing to make the paddock smaller. Grass regrowth will be rapid in the spring (2 to 3 weeks), so as long as you have enough paddocks in the rotation, you should not need to confine horses to a stress lot unless it is raining and soggy.
Summer is a good time to evaluate every pasture as your grasses are not dormant. Take a walk through each pasture and note the amount of bare ground, weed cover, and desirable cover. The growth of cool season grasses, such as: orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, timothy, tall fescue, brome, etc. slows significantly when it gets hot and dry. If grazing rotationally, you may need to confine horses to a stress lot/dry lot while you wait for a paddock to recover to 8-10 inches. Make sure to feed hay while they’re not consuming pasture forage.
If it is a mild summer with sufficient moisture, make another Nitrogen application for increased summer growth. Around June, you can apply another 40-50 lbs of Nitrogen (when there is adequate rainfall). Identify weeds of concern and make a pasture weed inventory. When the weeds are mature you can’t do much other than mow them and prevent them from spreading seeds. However, once you identify them and their life cycles, determine the most effective herbicide and the most effective time to control them in the next growing season.
If you plan to hire someone to do pasture work in the fall, contact them early, as fall is a very busy season for custom applicators. Determine if your laneways and pasture gates are wide enough for any equipment to pass through and maneuver.
Late summer/early fall is a great time to reseed pastures as there is less weed pressure and temperatures are typically cooler. This is beneficial for cool-season grasses. The optimum seeding window for many states is August 15 to September 15. Again, keep horses off a newly seeded pasture until it is well established – when at least 6 inches of growth is showing.
If you are unsure about what kind of grasses you have in your pastures, look at their color when temperatures start getting cold. Desirable cool season grasses like orchard grass, tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, and perennial ryegrass will be green and growing. Summer annual weed grasses like crabgrass, foxtail, barn yard grass, and Japanese stilt grass will be ending their life cycles and turning brown. Therefore, if your pastures are brown in late fall, you may want to consider reseeding with cool-season grasses.
When an abundance of summer annual grasses are present, mow when seed heads are forming. The only way they regrow from year to year is through dropped seeds, so mow them before the seeds drop to reduce their growth next year. Some difficult perennial weeds like horse nettle and Canada thistle are difficult to control with mowing, as they spread from year to year via the root system. Fall is the most effective time to spray them with herbicide as they are transferring energy reserves down into their roots and they will pull the herbicide into the roots with it.
As temperatures cool off and grasses break summer dormancy, another application of Nitrogen will provide more forage growth during the fall green-up. Another 40-50 pounds of Nitrogen around September is appropriate. Again, remember to let some rain wash the fertilizer off the grass before returning horses to pasture.
Maintaining a pasture in lush, green grass requires constant attention, significant work and investment. However, your reward will be beautiful green pastures, reduction of weeds and the extra feed it will provide your horses. Note that lush, high-quality pasture does provide a significant source of calories for horses – horses at maintenance can have their energy and protein needs met with pasture alone. Keep an eye on weight by body condition scoring or using a weight tape regularly. Obese horses, or those with metabolic problems may need to wear grazing muzzles or even be kept on dry lots. Consult with your veterinarian for specific advice.