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Making better use of your horse pasture


Pasturing horses offers numerous benefits to recreational owners.

Improving the productivity of your pasture offers several benefits. Pasturing can:

Pasturing horses also has some disadvantages. It can increase time and expense of fencing, monitoring pasture growth, and moving horses; potential for neglecting horses; risk of danger to horses from toxic weeds, escape, or injury on fencing; potential for horse damage to trees; and potential exposure to internal parasites, disease-carrying insects, ticks, and mosquitoes.

Figure 4. Recommended fertilizer application for a grass pasture.

TIP: To protect water quality and shorelines, horses should not have free access to waterways, ponds, lakes, or wetlands. Do not allow animals to graze in public waters. Check with your local government about regulations governing acceptable sites for pastures.

Pasture Improvement

Horse pastures must be carefully managed in order to maximize their productivity. Some things to consider:

Soil fertility. Fertility refers to the level of essential nutrients present and available for pasture plants (forages). You can test your pasture’s soil to determine if additional nutrients must be applied to yield the volume of grasses and legumes desired. If a soil test reveals a deficiency, you will need to apply additional nutrients using horse manure and/or commercial fertilizers.

You can get a soil test kit from any University of Minnesota Extension office or private soil testing laboratory. Follow the instructions for collecting a sample to send in for analysis. Request tests that measure the levels of phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), soil pH, percent organic matter, and soil texture. Note on the test form whether the pasture consists of grasses or a mixture of grasses and legumes. Additionally, provide a desired yield goal (tons of forage per acre) for the pasture. Two tons per acre is an easily attainable yield goal.

The test results will include fertilizer recommendations in the form of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P2O5), and potash (K2O). Pastures may need additional nutrients that are best applied in early spring (mid April to early May). You may need to add lime to acid soils to adjust the pH.

Although fertilizer application should be based on a soil test, Figure 4 offers some general guidelines for the amount of fertilizer to apply to a primarily grass pasture.

Most of the phosphorus and potassium consumed by horses will be returned to the pasture through their manure. Periodic soil tests on the pastures will confirm this nutrient recycling. Nitrogen will likely need to be annually applied to pastures consisting of primarily grass with few legumes.

Weeds. Weeds compete with legumes and grasses for soil moisture, sunlight, and nutrients. Grazing will keep some weeds out of pastures, but cannot eliminate all weed problems. Positive identification of weed species is the first step in determining the appropriate control strategy. Horse owners should be most concerned about toxic weeds (e.g., hoary alyssum) but should strive to control other weeds in order to further improve their pasture’s productivity. You can control weeds by rotational grazing, mowing, hand pulling, or chemically treating weeds when the horses are elsewhere.

Species mix. Pastures can provide feed for horses from May through September. Generally speaking, grasses prosper during the cooler days at the beginning and end of the growing season, while legumes such as alfalfa and other clovers are most productive in the warmer, midsummer months. Additionally, legumes add protein to the pasture’s feed value and provide nitrogen for the grasses through nitrogen fixation.

If you do not choose to devote a high level of management to your pastures, it may not be worth the extra expense of including legumes. Additionally, the durability of grasses helps the pasture resist extensive trampling by the horses. When starting a new pasture, research from the University of Minnesota suggests the following mix for horses (per-acre basis):

Close and continuous grazing of pastures with this mix will likely result in the survival of only bluegrass and thistles. If you choose to allow your horses to continuously graze the pastures, substitute bluegrass and white clover for alfalfa. Bluegrass can withstand close grazing and forms a sod that can better tolerate horses’ hooves.

Overgrazing. Continuous grazing, or allowing horses access to the entire pasture from spring through fall, will make existing weed problems even worse. If allowed to continuously graze a pasture, horses can seriously reduce the forages’ productivity. Under continuous grazing, forages never get a chance to recover and outgrow the weeds. Legumes such as alfalfa and other clovers will not survive if continuously grazed. Grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass can tolerate continuous grazing but will be less productive than if managed under a rotational grazing plan.

Carefully monitor your horses’ grazing to maximize feed value. Continuous, close grazing, when horses eat the plants down to very short levels, will seriously stunt the regrowth of the plants and allow weeds such as thistles and other less desirable species such as bluegrass to get ahead of the desirable forages. Well-timed rotations through several, smaller-sized paddocks will help desirable plants reestablish themselves.

Water. Like urban lawns and other field crops, horse pastures benefit from adequate water throughout the growing season. However, purchasing and maintaining irrigation equipment can be much more costly than occasionally purchasing supplemental forage. Healthy plants that have not been overgrazed will be more productive during drought.

Rotational Grazing

Healthy forage plants are more productive if given an opportunity to regrow between grazings. You can enhance forage growth by dividing a pasture into at least four separately fenced paddocks and rotating your horses among them (Figure 5).

Since grass pasture plants grow most rapidly in spring and slow down in the fall, you will need to experiment to come up with an optimum rotation length. Start with three to four weeks of rest per paddock during summer, maybe fewer in spring and more in fall.

The stocking rate per acre does not change under a rotational grazing plan. The general rule of thumb is to start your horses grazing in a paddock when the forages are at least 6 to 10 inches long; move your horses after they have grazed the forage to an average height of 3 to 4 inches. (If bluegrass is the dominant forage, horses can graze it down to 2 inches and then get turned back into the pasture when it has reached a height of 6 to 8 inches.)

Figure 5. Rotational grazing paddock layout

For example, say you have two horses and four acres of pasture with uniform soil type, topography, plant species, and yield throughout the entire area. You could divide the pasture into four one-acre paddocks and graze the horses for one week per paddock. This will give each paddock three weeks to regrow. If regrowth is slower, you’ll need to supplement the pasture with hay. If the growth is faster, you’ll need to rotate more often or make hay from the paddock.

Undergrazing (grazing too few horses on too large of a paddock for too short of a grazing period) can encourage horses to selectively graze and result in a lot of underutilized forage requiring clipping or hay making.

Lightweight electric fencing consisting of polywire strung on lightweight plastic or fiberglass posts work well for dividing a pasture into paddocks. These materials are easily connected to perimeter fences and allow you to modify the paddock size or shape depending on forage growth.

Pasture Management Summary

Table 4 summarizes management activities for grass pastures. Well-managed grass/legume pastures will not need supplemental nitrogen. After you have gotten to know how much your horses’ grazing reduces the soil nutrients, you will not need to annually test your soil.

Table 4. Pasture management calendar

Dates (aproximate) Pasture activity
March 1 Aniamls out of pasture
April Soil test and fertilize (end of month)
mid-April Apply supplemental nitrogen (grass pastures)
May 1-15 Begin grazing
June Cut surplus forage for hay
mid-June Apply supplemental hitrogen (grass pastures)
early July Cut weeds and mature plants
mid-August Apply supplemental nitrogen (grass pastures)
September Cut or spray perennial weeds
September/October Let plants recover
winter Snow cover

Frequently Asked Questions About Pastures

How much pasture should I allow per horse?
Stocking rates depend on your horses’ feed needs and the pasture’s yield. As a general rule, horses eat about 1 to 2 percent of their body weight per day in the form of pasture forage. Assume that a 1,000 pound horse will eat about 15 to 20 pounds of pasture forage per day.
Stocking rates of one horse per two to four acres may be easily achieved with a little attention to fertility, weeds, and forage mix. Higher rates could result in the horses trampling much of the pasture and damaging forage. However, well-managed pastures (those with adequate fertility, few weeds, and the appropriate plant mix) can be rotationally grazed at higher stocking rates.

What should I do about uneven grazing?
Since horses selectively graze younger pasture plants, you may need to clip the mature grasses and legumes still standing after the horses have grazed the pasture to induce them to regrow. Allowing the ungrazed plants to remain standing without clipping could stunt the regrowth of the other forages by shading them out. If you need to clip your pastures, leave a four-inch stubble. Clipping the pasture too frequently will encourage short, less productive forages such as bluegrass.

How can I renovate existing pasture?
An overgrazed, underfertilized, weedy pasture will become more productive when managed effectively. One of the most common ways to renovate existing pastures is to directly seed legumes into the standing forages. You can do this by scattering the seeds on the soil surface, interseeding with a conventional grain drill, or interseeding with a heavy grain or no-till drill. Some county soil and water conservation districts rent seeders for a nominal fee.
To give the newly seeded forages the best chance of establishing themselves, University of Minnesota research recommends a spring seeding when the pasture grasses are five to six inches tall. Since new seedlings can’t compete with established plants without help, consider applying a glyphosate herbicide like RoundupĀ® at a reduced dosage (about two-thirds strength) before seeding to suppress the standing grasses just enough to allow new seeds to get started. Grass pastures may benefit from adding nitrogen over the course of the growing season. If soil tests indicate a nitrogen deficiency, consider applying urea in mid-April, June, and August.

Can grazing legumes lead to bloat?
Pastures with a large percentage of legumes can lead to bloat. To help prevent bloat, introduce horses to fresh, lush grass/ legume pasture a little bit at a time. Do not turn hungry horses into a lush grass/legume pasture. Provide dry hay and plenty of salt and water to newly pastured horses.

What can I do about pocket gophers?
Pastures may suffer from an infestation of pocket gophers. Pocket gophers feed on forages and their hills can smother plants. Horses can trip on their mounds and mound entrances.
One way to eradicate pocket gophers is to rotate pastures to crops such as small grains that effectively eliminate their food source. If rotation is not an option, you can use repellants, toxicants, and traps to control pocket gophers.

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