Preparing your horse pasture for the winter will maximize your pasture's output for the spring.
This weekend’s fallish weather was a reminder that old man winter is lurking around the corner. Being originally from Texas, I am still caught unprepared when cold weather is at our doorstep in the midst of September. I was hoping to get some more growth from our hay meadow before we harvested our second cutting. Typically, it would be twice as tall this time of year, but the summer drought and the onset of cooler weather have really taken its toll. With hay at an all time high for Michigan, we are going to harvest the meadow, even with an expected low yield.
I recently spent some time on the phone with our county extension educator and realized if I had fertilized our field earlier this year, it would most likely have endured the summer drought better, giving us a higher yield for our second cutting. So, lessons learned, we are now planning for next year’s pastures and hay fields While my plan is for my Michigan acreage, there are some tools that you may be able to use as well.
1. Get Soil Tested
My first step will be to take a soil sample of our hay field. With the high costs of fertilizer, it doesn’t make any sense to buy nutrients that you may not need. Also, as long as we are going through the mechanics of fertilizing our field, we should get the right quantity of fertilizer for fall application. The soil sample analysis will give me a tailor made recipe for fertilizer along with how much to apply per acre for my field. You should have your soil sampled in your pastures and hay fields every three years so you can evaluate your soil fertility both to maximize your forage yield and provide soil nutrient information for your manure management plan. For Michigan, I will send my soil samples to the Michigan State University Soil Testing Lab. Most land grant universities have soil testing labs. If you don’t know where to send your soil samples, contact your county extension office or ask your local grain elevator.
WATCH THIS VIDEO from Rutgers University. I love these two guys!
2. Apply Recommended Nutrients
Pastures, whether you are feeding livestock or harvesting hay, will need nutrients over time. My field is primarily orchard grass, one of the cool season grasses we use in Michigan. Considering we haven’t fertilized in nine years, there is a good chance it is deficient in nitrogen. While we have spread composted manure in this field, the nutrient availability in our compost will be quite a bit lower than a commercial fertilizer.
If there was more legume type forages in the field (like clover or alfalfa) the need for nitrogen would be lower. Legumes fix nitrogen back into the soil. That is one of the reasons you will often see clover in a pasture mix. However, a lot of horse people don’t like clover in their fields. It is also harder to dry when harvested and prone to mold issues that can cause photosynthesis reactions in horses.
WATCH THIS VIDEO. Another great video from my friend Dr. Martinson from the University of Minnesota.
N, P & K
While being the most expensive nutrient, Nitrogen (N) will help drought stressed plants take-up more nutrients through their roots to prepare for winter. You should notice that your grass stands thicken up after fertilizing with the recommended nitrogen. Additional phosphorus (P) and/or potassium (K) may also be needed to help prepare the plants for winter and ensure the nitrogen is being utilized successfully. Talk to your county extension agent or COOP about the best way to apply your fertilizer. Often, splitting the recommended fertilizer into 2 or even 3 applications will help-out your pasture more in the long run.
Fall is a great time to add lime to the soil. The soil’s pH should range from 6.0 – 6.5. To acidic (below a pH of 5.5), and the plants productivity will be negatively effected. Farm grade lime is relatively inexpensive when compared to nitrogen fertilizer so it only makes sense to apply it if you need it. Lime is non-toxic to horses, so even if you are spreading lime on a pasture that is being grazed, you won’t need to remove your livestock.
3. Rest the Field
Plants need a healthy stand to withstand harsh weather conditions. It is important to let a pasture go into winter with at least a 6 inch stand so that it can collect moisture and nutrients. Resting your field will allow some late growth and uptake of nutrients while the soil is 45 degrees F or above. Horse hoof damage is particularly hard on a pasture. Make sure you remove your horses when the pasture is wet.
While you are resting your field is a good time to take check out your pasture productivity and see if you need to reseed. Walk your fields and check for the ratio of edible grasses to nonedible plants (weeds). Measure the plant height and thickness of your edible plants. If they are less than 4 inches tall and you see a lot of bare ground, you may want to consider reseeding your pasture in the future. Talk with your county agent about frost seeding in the very early spring to help thicken up your pasture and decrease the weed competition.
WATCH THIS VIDEO from Rutgers University. I hope these guys don’t think I am stalking them!
TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE DOING THIS FALL TO PREPARE YOUR HORSE FARM FOR THE WINTER. PLEASE SHARE YOUR IDEAS IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW.
Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program. Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.