The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Inc.

Horse Forage and Forage Management: Pasture Production Management

Pasture production management involves site selection, variety selection, and production inputs, among other things. Pasture management can vary from a casual approach to intensive longrange planning. Planning is needed. Experience, skill, and common-sense judgment are important.

Many horsemen tend to be content to feed processed feeds and ignore pasture potential. Sometimes with high-value animals, that is wise. It is also wise to consider that good pasture can be nutritional and more economical than processed feeds.

Pastures can be unproductive, weedy, low quality, and barely nutritional. They can also be the opposite.

All horsemen cannot be forage production experts. However, to realize the benefits, they must use basic production requirements, know the science of pasture management, and apply acceptable use techniques.

There are many aspects of good pasture management. The scope of this writing does not allow thorough coverage of them, but you can obtain additional management information from the Noble Foundation, Oklahoma State University extension and research personnel, and other agricultural information services.

If you already have a pasture base, seek information on how to manage it. Use it partly according to horse nutritional requirements. Manage it for good cost-effectiveness per unit of forage or per day of horse feed. Plan and manage it for the long term.

If you are fortunate enough to choose what pasture to develop, study your lesson well. Seek professional advice, decide what is best for your region, soil, capabilities, and horses, and then establish and manage the pasture well.

Some important pasture management considerations are:

  1. kind and variety of forages adapted to soils and climate of your area
  2. establishment procedures for good, early, useful pasture
  3. resistance and tolerance to horse grazing and trampling in your area
  4. need for fertilization and response to fertilization
  5. methods of weed control
  6. need for rotational grazing approaches
  7. response to use and needed recovery periods
  8. palatability of the forages for horses

Forage Fertilization for Production
Forage fertilization is almost always crucial for good production and successful horse pasture management. No forages produce well without good soil fertility, and few soils have enough inherent fertility for upper-level production. Most soils in the central United States must be fertilized to produce improved forages well.

Grasses need primarily nitrogen, but also phosphorus, potassium, and lime in many cases, as do legumes. Fertilization recommendations should be made on the basis of soil test results, objectives, and experience.

Fertilization must be done with some goal in mind:

  1. You can apply fertilizer at a minimal rate just to maintain grass stands. Some operators might wish this rate to be the minimal effective rate, or just enough to carry light stocking.
  2. You can apply fertilizer to get the most effective forage production per pound of fertilizer applied, that is, apply it at a rate at which pounds of forage produced per pound of fertilizer would be judged cost effective at an upper level of forage production. There are many ranges of fertilization applications that are acceptable for the land, the forage, and the operator's goals. Seek professional advice to determine the amount to apply.
  3. You can fertilize at a maximum effective rate. This application would yield the greatest forage volume over the years.

Objectives vary, and what one considers well fertilized may not always be so. What is suitable for one horse pasture may not be for another. What is good for another livestock operation may be too good for a casual horse pasture, or vice versa.

Native range grasses are generally not fertilized. If it is judged wise to fertilize them, use low amounts of actual nitrogen per acre at 30 to 75 pounds, and phosphorus and potassium according to soil test results. Fertilize only once per season. This recommendation also applies to 'King Ranch' bluestem pastures.

Other grasses that respond well to fertilization include bermudagrass, Old World bluestems, crabgrass, weeping lovegrass, and winter pasture from small grains, ryegrass, rescuegrass, fescue, and other cool-season perennials. The following is a fertilizer guide for producing forage for a moderatequality horse pasture or meadow in southern Oklahoma and surrounding areas. This summary is presented for either warm- or cool-season forages; read carefully.

    Early Season — Top-dress with nitrogen to apply 50 to 100 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre. The date of this application would be about April 15 to May 15 for the summer grasses and just before or immediately after stand emergence for the annual winter pastures, usually about September 1 to October 15. An application of 30 to 50 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre could be considered a minimal application for simple stand survival, stand maintenance, and low production if it were the only application.

    Midseason — Top-dress with nitrogen to apply an additional 50 to 100 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre about June 1 to 15 for the summer grasses and about January 1 to February 15 for winter pastures. Spring applications during April should be considered for late winter pasture or early summer grasses.

Legume pastures should be fertilized according to soil test results for phosphorus, potassium, and lime. Grass and legume mixture pastures can be fertilized relatively lightly with nitrogen, at 30 to 50 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre, to allow maintenance of the legume and get some added grass production. Legume pastures in southern Oklahoma and surrounding areas almost always need phosphorus, and they often need potassium and lime.

The above information is only a guide and is far from the upper limit possible or the individual accuracy desired. The scope of this writing does not allow adequate discussion of fertilization methods or the rate variations and type of fertilizer. That information must be acquired elsewhere.

High nitrate content in forage may present potential animal health problems. For horse pasture, it is wise to top-dress several times at a lower acceptable rate than to top-dress once at an extremely high rate.

The most efficient forage production is from a higher-rate, one-time application coinciding with the warm moist seasons. Part of the reason for using lower rates of nitrogen is due to uncertainty in some horse situations. The nitrogen fertilization rates discussed above, however, are not considered high.

Visits to several veterinary schools and diagnostic labs have failed to verify any serious or common problems with nitrates or our suggested nitrogen rates. There has been little problem with nitrates in horse nutrition.

Precautions in pasture fertilization and liming should be observed:

  1. Do not spill fertilizer or lime in horse areas.
  2. If any is spilled, thoroughly clean it up and till the soil if necessary. Take no chances! If there is any doubt, remove horses until after a rain and new forage growth.
  3. Do liming without horses on the area, and keep them off limed pasture until after a rain. Lime dust inhalation may cause respiratory problems.
  4. In a single application, do not use excessively high nitrogen rates, generally over 100 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre in southern Oklahoma and the surrounding regions.
  5. If fertilizer adheres to wet forage, it is wise to withhold horses until after a rain. The best choice is not to fertilize when forage is wet.

Weed and Brush Control with Herbicides or Mowing
Weeds include numerous broad-leaved plants, woody plants, and certain grasses. Weed control improves the overall quality of the herbage, increases the quantity of the forage, and minimizes plant toxicity potential.

Overall herbage quality improves when undesirable broad-leaved plants and their associated coarse stems are reduced or eliminated. Rid the area of potentially toxic plants and insects, and reduce or eliminate undesirable grasses such as annual three-awn and some of the volunteer naturalized winter annual grasses. The quantity of the desirable forage will increase because it produces more efficiently without weedy plant competition.

Blister beetle control is another reason to reduce broad-leaved weeds in horse-grazed areas because the beetles can congregate on some weeds. Blister beetles are a problem in alfalfa, and they also feed on pigweed, kochia, and other broad-leaved weeds. They also tend to congregate on some broad-leaved plants without feeding.

Pastures, runs, paddocks, and meadows can all be sprayed with herbicides for weedy plant control. Always read the container label for all the application information. Observe all precautions and grazing or haying restrictions. The herbicide choices are many, and the use of a given herbicide depends on the problem and objective.

The more common postemergence herbicide choices for forage grasses include the following trade names:

  • Ally
  • Amber
  • Banvel
  • Grazon P+D (2, 4-D and picloram)
  • Rave
  • Remedy
  • Roundup
  • 2, 4-D
  • Weedmaster (2, 4-D and Banvel)

These herbicides and mixtures are used for special cases. Where there is a unique weedy plant problem, it is wise to consult a weed control specialist for a recommendation and precise recipe. Always follow the label guidelines. Be certain to have the proper permits and licenses to buy and use herbicides.

All of the herbicides above are used to control broad-leaved weeds after they emerge and begin growing. Numbers 3, 4, 6, and 9 are generally used to control weeds that are resistant to 2, 4-D alone or broad-leaved weeds stressed by something such as drought or maturity. Rates can be somewhat fitted to the need and objective. Remedy, Banvel, and Grazon P+D are also used for woody plant control.

If a pasture contains alfalfa or clovers, broad-leaved weeds can be controlled with 2, 4-DB. This chemical is not 2, 4-D, but 2, 4-DB. It has limited effect on alfalfa and many clovers, but it will kill vetch.

There are not any specific herbicide data relative to horse forage readily available. Guidelines must be the restrictions on the label.

Some of the postemergence herbicides have a grazing restriction of seven or more days. To simplify matters and ease uncertainty, consider as a guide that all pastures sprayed postemergence need a ten-day use deferment for horse pasture. It is wise to keep horses off sprayed pastures until the spray has dried to avoid chance of eye or skin irritation.

Some weeds accumulate higher nitrate content for a short time after being sprayed with 2, 4-D and possibly other postemergence herbicides. If these weeds are palatable and in good supply, it is conceivable a nitrate reaction in horses is possible, but the weed spraying itself is considered nontoxic.

The regular deferment periods recommended should take care of the potential problem. Some horse managers are petrified of using any herbicide because they lack chemical understanding and fear horse health problems with a high-value horse. There is no known serious problem with spraying a pasture properly, using approved herbicides, employing the stated deferment, and continuing the forage use. The advantages of spraying are great. Those who are extremely cautious should use the grazing-restriction guidelines above but also consider that, if it rained, the forage would be even cleaner. Some horse managers use herbicides regularly and have no reservations, because experience has proven the practice. Managers should be cautious of roadside spraying or such things as oil-field-site spraying where herbicides not approved for pasture are used.

Mowing can be done for weed control and aesthetic purposes. It is inferior to herbicides for weed control, but it does help. It should be considered a last resort, but sometimes it is the best choice if there is risk of herbicide damage to neighboring areas. Ideally, mowing should be done after the weeds have grown at least 12 inches and budding has started. Weeds will usually need to be mowed several times per season. Mowing is expensive, but it may have more real value when used in conjunction with aesthetic needs, weed control, and balance of forage use in the grazing approach.

Cattle can also be used as a partial aid in weed control because they graze certain broadleaved weeds differently than horses. We discuss cattle and horse combination grazing more in grazing management. Sheep and goat flocks are a great biological method of weed and brush control.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider regarding weeds is that all weeds are not undesirable. If a plant that is not the base forage for a pasture is present, consider its usefulness. If it is palatable, nutritious, and relatively nontoxic, use it - don't kill it. Use with good recovery periods often removes those plants and allows the base forage to dominate, especially if cattle or other stock can be used in conjunction with horses.

Brush control is a more variable management input than usual weed control, and we cannot cover the subject here. If brush control is needed, there are many methods, varying from hand controls to aerial application. Analyze the brush problems and seek advice from specialists to determine the best way to treat the problem.

Dragging and Sweeping
Horses tend to defecate and paw in certain areas and not distribute these behaviors over the whole pasture as readily as cattle, goats, and sheep, so regardless of other pasture management, horse pastures need to be dragged to scatter animal wastes and smooth pawed areas. Dragging can be done with many tools such as a spike tooth harrow, flexible chain harrow, homemade iron drag, or just a wad of brush. Dragging is best done after a rain shower or under very high humidity.

Work by Herd (1986) may be cause to reevaluate dragging. The author has developed a technique of sweeping horse pastures to physically remove manure. For simplicity, just consider the sweeper a street sweeping machine. The sweeping can remove manure before there is time for parasite eggs to hatch and migrate to the forage, where the parasites would be ingested. The manure can be stockpiled, composted, and used as organic fertilizer. Sweeping to remove manure and parasite load can reduce pasture larval counts up to 95 percent. Sweeping also increases pasture area by up to 50 percent by cleaning areas that were avoided because of horse manure. This technique is useful only on short pasture and a few small paddocks. Commercial sweepers, such as the Jacobson brand, are available.

Removing manure is somewhat counterproductive if nutrient recycling in a rotational grazing approach is desired. However, the manure can be piled, composted, returned to the horse pastures, or used elsewhere.

The horse pastures apparently have to be very short, if pictures in the sweeper reports are accurate, which may mean a considerable sacrifice in forage management for our region. The operator must weigh the pros and cons - is sweeping and removing manure and potential parasite load worth the sacrifice in forage management, nutrient recycling, and expense?