Grazing horses on warm-season annual grasses
On this page
Warm-season grasses have the potential to supply forage during summer months and following winterkill of cool-season forages. Teff is a warm-season annual that shows potential as a horse pasture forage. However, it should to be tested for nitrates and calcium to phosphorus ratio before grazing.
Grazing during the summer slump
Pastures in the Upper Midwest mainly consist of cool-season grasses. However, many cool-season grasses go through a summer slump, resulting in reduced pasture productivity and forage quality during July and August.
Annual warm-season grasses have potential to provide forage during the summer slump and can be used as emergency forage should cool-season grasses suffer winter injury. However, annual warm-season grasses are known to have higher fiber concentrations and lower crude protein (CP) and nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) when compared to cool-season grasses. Most warm-season grasses are prone to accumulating nitrates, which can be toxic to most grazing livestock at high concentrations.
University of Minnesota researchers grazed four adult horses on ‘Summer Lovegrass’ teff, ‘PCS 3010’ sudangrass, ‘PCS 2020’ sorghum sudan BMR, Japanese millet, ‘Red’ Siberian millet, and ‘Jumbo’ annual ryegrass that were planted in May of 2014 and 2015. Annual ryegrass served as a cool-season grass control.
Horses grazed the forages in rotation between June and September. Horse preference was determined by visually assessing the percentage of available forage removed on a scale of 0 (no grazing activity) to 100 (100% of the existing vegetation grazed down to 4 inches).
- Most preferred: Annual ryegrass, teff, and sudangrass
- Least preferred: Sorghum-sudangrass, Japanese and Siberian millet
- Sudangrass was consistently among the highest yielding grasses (more than 6 tons/acre).
- Siberian and Japanese millet and annual ryegrass were among the lowest yielding forages (less than 2.8 tons/acre).
Neither Siberian nor Japanese millet survived for the entire growing season which may have resulted in their lower overall yields. All other annual grasses resulted in three or more grazings during the summer and fall months.
These results indicate that annual warm-season grasses, with the exception of Siberian and Japanese millet, have the potential for high yields when grazed by horses. However, warm-season forages should not be grazed lower than 4 to 6 inches for optimal regrowth in a grazing system.
Annual ryegrass consistently had higher CP and NSC levels, as well as lower neutral detergent fiber (NDF) concentrations when compared to warm-season grasses. While warm-season grasses had a lower nutritive value, these forages met or exceeded the nutrient requirement for adult horses at maintenance.
The lower NSC values in the warm-season grasses suggest they have potential for owners managing horses diagnosed with metabolic conditions (such as equine metabolic syndrome). However, it is important to note that an inverted calcium to phosphorus ratio (Ca:P) was observed in most forage species (the ideal Ca:P ratio is 1:1 to 3:1). If a Ca:P is less than 1:1, a calcium supplement will be required.
Some forages can accumulate high concentrations of nitrates (NO3-N) as a result of over fertilization or environmental stress. Nitrate toxicity is considered rare in horses. Previous research has shown that horses can consume forage with nitrates as high as 4,600 ppm, before nitrate poisoning will be observed.
While all forages, except annual ryegrass, were at acceptable levels in 2014, they all exceeded 6,430 ppm NO3-N in 2015. Excessive drought and heat were not factors, so mineralization of soil nitrogen from past manure applications to the site may have contributed to the high nitrate values. However, nitrate toxicity was not observed, likely because the horses grazed these forages for short periods of time and in rotation with other forages. Nitrate concentrations should be determined prior to grazing warm-season grasses.
Warm-season forage recommendations
General seasonal growth patterns observed in cool- versus warm-season grasses in the spring, summer, and fall months in the upper Midwest.
Based on maximizing yield, forage nutritive values, and preference, teff and sudangrass show potential as annual warm-season horse pasture forages. However, sudangrass can lead to prussic acid poisoning, cystitis syndrome and abortions in horses. While these conditions are more commonly observed under stressful environmental conditions including high temperatures, drought, and frost, they increase management concerns for horse owners.
Teff may be utilized in Midwest horse pastures as an emergency forage or to maximize grazing during the summer slump. The low nonstructural carbohydrate content of warm-season annuals shows potential for these forages to be grazed by horses diagnosed with metabolic conditions. However, due to the inverted calcium to phosporus levels and higher nitrate concentrations, teff should be tested prior to grazing.
Read the full report
The research paper includes data charts and forage nutritive value comparison tables. (PDF 380KB)
DeBoer, Michelle L., Craig C. Sheaffer, Amanda M. Grev, Devan N. Catalano, M. Scott Wells, Marcia R. Hathaway, and Krishona L. Martinson (September 7, 2017). Yield, Nutritive Value, and Preference of Annual Warm-Season Grasses Grazed by Horses. Agron. J. 109:2136–2148 (2017) doi:10.2134/agronj2017.02.0099.2017