Prepare Your Pasture for the Growing Season

Horse owners, look at the calendar and heave a sigh of relief: winter has ending. You may be happy to shed bulky coats and spend more time riding, but is your pasture ready for the growing season?

If you’re fortunate enough to have pasture for your horse, you know that grazing can provide a good source of forage. Maintaining that pasture takes effort and spring is one of the busiest times.

Think of grass as a “crop” and manage it accordingly for the best results. The following management practices can help maximize spring and summer grazing:

  • Keep horses off pasture when ground is wet/muddy
  • Fence off a “sacrifice area” for turnout during drought or mud season when horses may damage pasture
  • Take a soil test every 2 to 3 years to determine if nutrients are needed
  • Fertilize according to soil test when necessary
  • Apply fertilizer and herbicide strategically; don’t over-apply
  • Watch stocking rates and don’t overgraze
  • Use a rotational grazing program
  • If reseeding, plant the best grasses for your region, soil and type of use

“We need to be thinking more strategically when it comes to pasture management,” says Bob Coleman, PhD PAS, extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky.

“Probably the biggest mistake people make at this time of year is putting too much pressure on the pasture before it’s ready. They turn out when the ground is too wet and create a lot more mud than necessary,” he notes.

How wet is too wet for turnout? When water squishes up in your footprints if you walk on the field, this tells you the ground is at — or close to — saturation point. Wait until the soil firms up before putting horses out, even if this takes several days. Otherwise, their weight can damage grass roots and also compact the soil, negatively affecting drainage and future grass growth.

If you fed hay in the pasture during the winter, spring is the time to move feeders and clean up those areas so new grass growth won’t be smothered.

Opt for Rotation

Rotation is always beneficial to the pasture and can prevent overgrazing. Some owners use temporary electric fencing to keep horses off part of the pasture for a few weeks so that area can rest and grow. (For safety’s sake, only use temporary fencing for interior fencing, never as perimeter fencing.)

How do you know when to rotate and rest a pasture? Walk the entire field to assess its condition and look at grass length.

“Horses don’t graze a pasture evenly and they favor shorter grass because it’s more palatable,” says Coleman. “Horse owners need to be cognizant of how much of the pasture is getting short — not just places where the grass is long. You want to mow and maintain the pasture so the grass is about the same height. Otherwise, the short grass will get grazed so low that it gets replaced by weeds.”

If your pastures contain bare or muddy areas, your local county extension agent can suggest a quick-growing grass (annual ryegrass is an example) that can be planted now as a short-term management practice. Reclaiming those worn areas can help prevent erosion and re-establish a productive grass stand instead of allowing weeds to proliferate.

Get Expert Advice

Seek advice from your extension agent when planting pastures and applying fertilizer and/or herbicide. A soil test will determine if fertilizing is needed and what to use for your specific conditions. Without soil testing, you’re just guessing.

“In many parts of country, the best time to improve grass stand vigor is to fertilize in the fall. This will improve your grass by the next spring,” Coleman adds.

The best form of weed control is a healthy pasture, so don’t overstock. Too many horses on a pasture will result in overgrazing and make the pasture susceptible to weeds.

If you must use an herbicide, read label directions carefully and follow your extension agent’s recommendations. Some products require removal of horses from the pasture for a specified amount of time. Others allow horses to graze after the spray has dried.