Fall is the season when most horse owners should think of how they can improve their horse pastures for the coming year. Some pastures might have been managed well and others not, depending on their management efforts. Horse pasture improvement and renovation requires some time and patience. However, small changes in your horse pasture management practices can make a significant improvement in your current pasture.
Following are things to be considered in fall horse pasture management.
- Soil Testing: A soil test every 2 - 4 years for soil pH, P, and K is recommended and optimum soil nutrient levels will help horse pasture maintain its performance. Without testing soils, it would be difficult to determine the precise amount of lime and nutrients to add to the horse pasture. For sampling purposes, divide the pasture into areas with uniform soil color and texture as well as similar management histories. Sample each area separately using a soil probe, drawing 15 random soil cores at 6 inches deep. Place samples in a clean plastic bucket, mix them thoroughly, and put wet soil into a sealable plastic bag or dry soil into soil containers.
- Liming and Fertilizing: Soil pH is one of the most important factors determining pasture health. In general, the optimum soil pH for plant growth is between 6.0 and 7.0. In the fall, no nitrogen fertilizer is generally required because most plant growth slows down due to shorter day length and cooler temperatures. Most cool-season horse pastures in Kansas are either smooth brome or tall fescue. Fall tiller growth is important for these two grass species as it contributes to the carbohydrate reserves in the crown. Applying phosphorus and potassium based on soil test results this fall is important since these two elements are essential for good winter survival, in particular potassium. In general, if the pasture consists of more than 50 percent legume plants, no nitrogen fertilizer at all is required because legume plants fix nitrogen via symbiotic nitrogen fixation process. Including legumes also reduces plant disease incidence and improves horse performance by increasing forage quality. Therefore, it is important to identify what percentage of legume is present in your pasture. If there are not enough legumes in the pasture, planting legumes via inter-seeding or frost seeding into the existing pasture will improve it. Caution: Do not plant alsike clover since it can cause photosensitization, liver damage, and possibly death in horses.
- Weed Control: Due to potentially harmful or toxic weeds to horses, it is important to control weeds on a regular basis. Please keep in mind that the best weed control is to have healthy, thick forage stands on your horse pasture via right forage species selection, good soil fertility and rotational grazing management.
- Dragging Pastures with a Chain Link Harrow: To take advantage of horse manure as a plant nutrient source, the pasture should be dragged periodically with a harrow. Dragging reduces parasite populations by exposing them to air and sunlight. Do this when the weather is hot and dry to ensure that parasite larvae contained in the manure are killed by the sun, otherwise dragging on cool, wet days only spreads out the parasites. Dragging also helps to smooth over areas dug up by horses’ hooves on wet soil.
- Rotational Grazing: Some horse owners keep their horses at the same paddock pretty much year round without rotating them from one paddock to another. This continuous grazing system can damage the plants by heavy hoof action in particular on wet clay soils. Forage plants need to store food reserves in the roots in the fall through winter. That’s why it is very critical to avoid stress to forage plants by heavy continuous grazing, especially in September. If forage plants do not store enough carbohydrates in the roots, they may not survive over winter when harsh, cold weather occurs with little snow cover. Therefore, it is very important to rotate the horses using several paddocks to maintain healthy plants, good stand persistence, safe environment, and healthy horses.
Doo-Hong Min, Southwest Area Crops and Soils Specialist
John Holman, Cropping Systems Agronomist, Southwest Research-Extension Center
Doug Shoup, Southeast Area Crops and Soils Specialist
Dorivar Diaz, Nutrient Management Specialist