Few things are more captivating than the sight of horses grazing quietly in a green, grassy meadow. Yet, appearances are secondary to the practicality and economy gained by maintaining a high-quality pasture for horses. Through pasturing, horses are more likely to meet their daily exercise and nutritional requirements. And, feed and supplement costs, other than for a comprehensive salt/vitamin/mineral product, can be virtually suspended for many adult horses. Plus, the time and money spent on bedding down stalls is eliminated.
Test the Soil
If the soil has not been analyzed for several years, it should be tested prior to the growing season to determine pH, plant available phosphorus and potassium, and other nutrients required by plants. Testing will help determine if there are any soil nutrient deficiencies that could influence growth and nutritional values of forages grown on the soil.
How to Collect Soil Samples
• Clear away any weeds, dead grass or leaves before digging three to six inches down from the surface to reach the soil that will produce the most accurate test results.
• Gather soil samples from 10 to 15 random locations throughout the field. Collect four to six tablespoons of uniform soil per location.
• Place all the samples into a plastic bucket and mix well. Submit approximately a one pint sample to the lab for testing.
• Use a lab in close proximity to the pasture as lab testing equipment is typically calibrated based on the region’s particular soil types. The local county extension office may be able to offer suggestions for local labs. Other options to locate a lab are to check with a local feed store or do an online search.
Liming and Fertilizing Pasture
• The ground should be limed in accordance with the pH test results, which is best done six months to a year before planting in order to allow sufficient time to neutralize the soil acidity.
• A fall liming program can be used in warmer weather climates where muddy conditions are typical in the early spring.
• Apply lime and fertilizer every two or three years for optimal plant growth.
• Be sure to allow sufficient time before re-introducing horses to the pasture to avoid potential toxicity – typically 24 hours or after a rain – in order for fertilizers to fall or wash through the foliage and into the soil.
When planning to introduce new forage to a pasture, first consider the climate, soil, and class(es) of horses that will be grazing on it. There are many different species of grasses and legumes from which to choose. The selection of forage species should be based on their optimum temperatures for growth, growth rates, adaptability, palatability to horses, lack of toxicity in horses and nutritional content, and also the drainage conditions of the pasture land.
Since horses are known for their random grazing habits, with preferences varying from horse to horse, in order to maintain a balance within the pasture, the ideal seeding should include a mixture of palatable forages that are also able to withstand close contact grazing. Horses are particularly tough on pastures. One horse can eat, trample and damage forage that is equivalent to at least 1,000 pounds of hay per month. Therefore, when establishing new seedlings, it is recommended to avoid grazing during the first season to reduce the risk of damage to young plants. As far as forage types go, there are two classifications: grasses and legumes.
Using a variety of grasses should be the main consideration when planting forages. However, when planning a selection, one should know that grasses are further classified as annuals and perennials. Annuals, such as annual ryegrass, rye, wheat and other small grains, need to be replanted every year; whereas, perennials, like orchard grass or timothy, regenerate yearly.
When compared at the same stage of maturity, legumes, such as clover and alfalfa, contain more protein, energy, magnesium and as much as five times the amount of calcium as grasses. Legumes are also highly palatable and easily digested in addition to maintaining their resilience. Horses seem to prefer grasses to legumes in pastures and legumes to grasses in dry form (hays). It is important to note, however, that if horses eat too much legume pasture too quickly without acclimating gradually, they can easily founder or colic. That’s why a combination of 70 percent grass and 30 percent legume is recommended to provide a nutritious base that enables horses to adapt to the rich forages more slowly. Horses should always be gradually introduced to grazing pasture.
Planting Combinations for the Southwest
For the Southwest region, a fall planting of coastal Bermuda grass and rye grass together with 30 percent of a legume variety (either the re-seeding of annual arrowleaf clover or perennial white clover) will provide nutritionally sound, nearly year-round grazing. Alfalfa is the most common legume fed to horses, but it does not do well in the southern U.S. because of high susceptibility to insects, diseases and hot, humid conditions.1 Birdsfoot trefoil, a yellow-flowered, stemmed, warm-season perennial legume, can tolerate more acidic soils that are less well drained compared with alfalfa. However, alfalfa greatly outproduces Birdsfoot trefoil when conditions are good for alfalfa.(1)
Pasture is ideal for many horses since it provides most of the nutrients horses need, allows for natural exercise and usually reduces feeding costs. For maximum output, pasture plants must be carefully selected for the region and the soil should be tested and the plants managed seasonally. Horses should be gradually introduced to pastures.
(1) Feeding and Care of the Horse, second edition. 1995. Lon D. Lewis. P. 108.
For more information about the feeding and care of horses, visit ADM Alliance Nutrition’s online equine library at www.grostrong.com. For free feeding suggestions for your horses, call the Equine Nutrition HELPLINE at 800-680-8254.
Reprinted with permission from ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc., 1000 N 30th St, PO Box C1, Quincy, Illinois, USA 62305-3115; 800-680-8254; www.grostrong.com. Judith A. Reynolds, Ph.D., P.A.S., Dipl. A.C.A.N., is the Equine Nutritionist and Equine Product and Technical Manager for ADM Alliance Nutrition, Inc.