Diversified Small Farming

Good Pasture = Dr Green

by Kevin H. Kline & Edward N. Ballard

The well-known therapeutic benefits of pasture rest and recreation are commonly referred to as "Dr. Green." You'll find no better way to start new foals than allowing them to roam on ample, high quality pasture with their dams. The benefits of Dr. Green are realized only if pasture growth is optimized through grazing management, the selection of productive and well-adapted forage species, and the maintenance of soil fertility.

A carefully managed pasture can be not only a healthy place for horses to live and exercise, but also a cost effective source of nutrition requiring minimal supplemental feed. In some states well-managed pastures can meet a horse's needs for both nutrition and exercise for six to eight months of the year. Lactating mares, growing foals, and horses being concurrently trained while on pasture usually require additional nutrients in the form of grain and mineral supplements, even while grazing the most productive pastures.

Pasture Hazards

Neglected, non-productive pastures may result in poor health and body condition, and may also be a major source of exposure to internal parasites such as large and small strongyles and ascarids. Horses on pasture must be maintained on a parasite control program.

They must also be checked frequently for injuries from unexpected encounters with fences, other horses, and miscellaneous environmental hazards. Frequently inspect not only your horses but also your pastures for dangerous objects and possible toxic plants.

Pastures located near wooded areas may contain white snake root or bracken fern, while horses in pastures bordering residential areas may occasionally be exposed to poisonous ornamental plants such as Japanese yew or cherry trees. If you control undesirable broadleaf weeds with an herbicide such as 2,4-D, do not allow your horses to graze the treated pasture for at least seven days after application.

Establishing Pasture

Good Pasture = Dr. Green
Establishing Pasture
by Kevin H. Kline & Edward N. Ballard

Whether you plan to improve an existing pasture or seed a new pasture, the first step is to test soil pH (acidity) and fertility. If the soil is not optimum in fertility and pH, any seeding has a low chance of success. The soil test recommendations will tell you how much lime and fertilizer your pasture needs. Recommended levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium will depend on both the soil test and the pasture's soil type.

Ideal pasture plants are: productive over a long growing season, highly palatable, aggressive, and adapted to the climate characteristics of your area. Since no single forage plant meets all these criteria, select several species to provide a dependable feed supply.

Most horse owners prefer permanent pastures for providing forage and exercise. A permanent pasture containing both grasses and legumes generally provides the highest yields of forage and the greatest variety in the diet. Legumes are plants that can convert nitrogen from the air into plant proteins; examples are alfalfa, clovers, and birdsfoot trefoil.

Under most grazing conditions horses prefer grasses to legumes, although legumes often have superior nutrient quality. Pennsylvania studies showed that horses make satisfactory progress on all pasture mixtures, but prefer Kentucky bluegrass to taller grasses such as timothy and bromegrass, and prefer clovers to alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil.

Kentucky bluegrass has earned its reputation among horsemen for producing high quality turf that is smooth, tight, and resilient and that heals readily. Under most conditions Kentucky bluegrass is palatable to horses and, when properly fertilized, is high in both protein and minerals. It may be grazed closely or clipped to maintain high quality pasture. On the down side, bluegrass produces less forage per acre than do other grasses and its growth slows during hot weather.

Tall-growing, cool-season grasses such as orchardgrass and bromegrass are more productive than bluegrass during hot weather. Horses do not discriminate against these grasses unless the grasses become too mature. Stock your pasture with enough horses and clip as necessary to prevent excess accumulation of plant growth in May and June. Clipping keeps the forage from becoming too mature and the sod from becoming clumpy. Orchardgrass and bromegrass will not tolerate close grazing, so always leave 3" to 4" of height.

Many legumes that are adapted to an area's soil and moisture conditions may be used successfully in horse pasture. Since horses don't bloat, you needn't fear the use of alfalfa, ladino, or white clover. Red clover, however, occasionally causes excessive slobbering, and certain varieties of crimson clover cause photosensitization, or sunburn, in areas of white markings, especially around the face.

Keep your seeding mixture simple. For best results use one or two grasses and one legume. Ask your county Extension agent for suggested seed mixtures for your region and soil type.pasture for at least seven days after application.

Pasture Management

Manage grazing to benefit both horses and pasture. Pasture plants have high energy and protein contents until they begin to flower, or head out. Grazing management should be designed to prevent or reduce heading. Pasture plants that are grazed too short have a reduced leaf area and will recover more slowly to produce less yield for the season.

Horses, being selective grazers, affect the productivity of a pasture. They prefer to eat young, immature plants and will graze some areas down to bare ground. In other parts of the pasture they will allow plants to grow to maturity, which lessens both their palatability and their nutrient availability. This grazing pattern is often called "spot" or "pattern" grazing. Horses will not graze in areas where they defecate. The resulting areas of short and long pasture forage are called "lawns" and "roughs."

Controlled grazing contributes to pasture productivity. The most common problems in managing horse pastures are overgrazing and undergrazing, because horse farms usually have a small number of large pastures. Large pastures become overgrazed in some areas and undergrazed in the remaining areas.

In contrast to cattle that tear and pull grass and leave long stubble, horses bite off grass cleanly and leave short stubble. Lower-growing species such as bluegrass and white clover are well suited to horse pasture since they are able to withstand close, continuous grazing. If rotational grazing is used, birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa, orchardgrass, and bromegrass are also well suited for horse pasture. During periods of peak growth, remove excess growth as hay.

To improve forage quality, clip uneaten clumps, unpalatable growth, and weeds. Improve the utilization of manure piles by scattering them with a chain harrow, which should be done only during hot, dry weather to minimize the likelihood of spreading parasites throughout the pasture. The ideal time to drag a pasture is during the period it is being rested in a rotational grazing program. Frequent shifting of the salt, shade, and watering devices also helps maintain pasture stands.

Cattle and horses will eat around each other's droppings, but not around their own. Pasturing horses and cattle on the same land simultaneously or in rotation assures more uniform use of the pasture, and also reduces parasitic infestation. Horses are not harmed by the intestinal parasites of cattle; each eliminates parasites that otherwise might be ingested by their natural host.

Finally, keep an eye on your stocking rate, or body weight of horses per acre. The appropriate stocking rate for permanent pasture is approximately 1,000 pounds of horse per 2 to 3 acres. rh horse logo
Kevin H. Kline was an Associate Professor of Animal Sciences, and Edward N. Ballard was an Animal Systems Extension Educator, both at the University of Illinois in Effingham. This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

  • Copyright © 1997 − 2023 Rural Heritage
    Rural Heritage  |  PO Box 2067  |  Cedar Rapids, IA 52406
    Telephone (319) 362-3027

    This file last modified: September 20 2015.

    Designed by sbatemandesign.com