Managing Horse Pastures
Table of Contents
Horse paddocks and pastures are often like golf courses. The horses over graze some areas so that they are golf-green height while defecating in others, creating roughs of ungrazed plants. Over grazing, compaction and tearing of the ground by hoofs, forms a surface where only the hardiest of plants can survive. Horse owners often do not manage horse paddocks and pastures to maximize forage output due to a lack of awareness and, often, a lack of equipment. The persistence of a productive pasture is dependent on selecting the right seed mixture; establishing a good stand; proper fertilization and grazing management.
The plant (forage) species in most paddocks/pastures usually consist of 50% or more of grass species. Grasses may require up to 300 kg of nitrogen per hectare to obtain the potential maximum economic yield. A minimum of 75 kg of actual nitrogen per hectare is needed to see a yield response. Under grazing conditions, a valuable indicator of the need for nitrogen is the appearance of better and greener growth around urine and manure spots. These spots will not be visible in a pasture receiving sufficient nitrogen. Yearly nitrogen application should be split into 1/2 in the early spring, 1/4 in late June and 1/4 in early September. Nitrogen is not the whole story. If plants are lacking nitrogen, they won't respond to phosphorous and potassium. All plants need phosphorous and potassium. The best recommendation would be to soil test your paddocks and pastures to determine the fertility level of these nutrients. Your local OMAFRA office or fertilizer supplier can help provide information in this regard.
Often the lack of fertilizer is because of the lack of equipment. Paddocks may have been built with small gates which limit access by tractors and fertilizer spreaders. For larger pastures, it may be economical to have a fertilizer supplier bring bulk fertilizer to the farm and spread it on the fields. For smaller properties, power take-off fertilizer spreaders on the back of the tractor work well. For those without access to a tractor and with small acreage, a hand cyclone fertilizer spreader can be used.
Often horse pastures are grazed too early in the spring. The first grazing should occur once the plants are 3 to 4 inches high and the horses are not punching holes in the soil. Horses should be rotated to a new paddock every 5 - 6 days to prevent them from grazing too close to the ground. The plants should not be grazed below 2 - 3 inches. This will require the availability of a large number of temporary or permanent paddocks. These can be created by using temporary electrical fence.
After the first grazing, pastures should be allowed to regrow until the plants are 8 - 10 inches high. Bluegrass can be grazed at 4 to 6 inches and alfalfa at 12 to 16 inches. The number of days required for rest differs over the grazing period. In the spring forages grow at twice the rate than during the summer. If the pastures get ahead of the horses, they can be used for hay production.
Many horse owners complain that their pastures are being overrun by buttercups, horse tail and other poisonous and non productive plants. The most environmentally friendly weed-control system is to have the natural competition, obtained from a vigorous growth of forage, prevent the invasion of weeds. The proliferation of weeds is often the result of poor management which stresses the desirable forage plants. Horse owners often feel that pastures and paddocks should last a life time. Such is not the case. Weeds are often a sign that the pasture has reached an old age and requires ploughing and re-seeding.
There are several methods to rejuvenate pastures. These are listed below from the least expensive and most convenient (1) to the most expensive and least convenient (4).
Suggestions for Horse Paddocks (from OMAFRA Publication 19)
Soil Drainage: Well Drained
Soil Drainage: Moderately Well Drained
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