The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Inc.

Horse Forage and Forage Management: Summer Pasture Grass Choices

Oklahoma, Texas, and the surrounding region offer a wide choice of summer forages for horses. Forages can vary from the perennials for long-term forage to annuals for special, short-term pastures. All need to be managed, and each has a unique requirement. The forages can make good hay, and most of them respond readily to fertilization and irrigation. All of the summer grasses have adequate long stem fiber for horses.

These forages must be selected for climatic adaptation, soil site, terrain, management to be imposed, amount of expected abuse, and overall intended use.

Establishment and detailed management procedures can be obtained from other publications. Additional information on warm-season forages and horse performance is in the section on horse research on forages.

Bermudagrass
Bermudagrass is probably the best overall warm-season perennial horse pasture for this region. Its quality is acceptable, and it forms almost a solid turf, sustains stands under abuse, allows companion cropping, and responds to modern rotational grazing and other modern management. It is one of the best all-around horse pastures for Oklahoma, Texas, and regions in the southeastern United States.

For Oklahoma, sprigged hybrid bermudagrass is available as 'Coastal' (for southern Oklahoma and Texas), 'Hardie', 'Midland', 'Midland 99', and 'Tifton 44'. Common types may also be sprigged. Winter-hardy seeded varieties of 'Cheyenne' and 'Wrangler' are good. 'Midland 99' and 'Tifton 44' are higher quality than 'Midland' or 'Coastal'. Any of these varieties are suitable. Other less cold-tolerant varieties can be used to the south and southeast of Oklahoma. An older type, 'Greenfield', is shorter, thicker, and suited to horse pastures. All of these varieties are productive when properly managed. They should be fertilized and sprayed or mowed for weed control, and use should be deferred to allow recovery, especially in late summer.

These common types of bermudagrasses, such as 'Greenfield' and 'Wrangler', tend to be shorter and denser and may have a denser rhizome system than many other varieties. There are also many naturalized common bermudagrasses that tend to be denser, shorter types than the improved hybrid varieties. They have survived the tests of time and situation.

Under poor horse pasture management, these common types persist and produce where the improved varieties succumb. If you will not rotationally graze, fertilize well, or otherwise manage your pasture, then these usually inferior bermudagrasses may be the best for you.

Bermudagrass is the toughest grass we have, but horses can still kill it. It must be managed and allowed to have a suitable recovery period. Horses have the biting ability to clip grass completely to the soil surface and destroy its vigor, therefore contributing to its death.

If bermudagrass is adapted to your horse production area, you probably should have it as a major forage base, especially in abuse areas. Other forages can be added to bermudagrass or integrated into the total pastures to add production, quality, and length of green season.

Crabgrass
Crabgrass is an annual high-quality forage that produces well on well-drained soils with a medium to coarse texture. It is easy to establish and can be managed for a planned volunteer stand that can last decades as a pasture or meadow without being reseeded, but it takes planning and management. It can form a sod whose quality nears that of bermudagrass and is certainly better than that of bunchgrasses. There are no known toxicity problems with crabgrass forage.

Crabgrass is a good addition to a horse pasture, primarily in the precipitation zones that receive at least 25 inches of rain or in irrigated areas. It is good horse pasture and horse hay that can rival the quality of the very best summer grasses.

Crabgrass pasture can be managed to have almost the same green season as bermudagrass, but single-crop crabgrass usually greens about two weeks later in the spring. Its quality is better than that of bermudagrass. The high digestibility of crabgrass makes it excellent pasture forage or hay for many horses (see cover illustration). Horse graziers have used good crabgrass pasture at 1 acre per horse during the full summer season.

Crabgrass can be grazed off in the fall and sod-seeded to rye at least as easily as rye can be sod-seeded into bermudagrass. Crabgrass can be used successfully as a tilled double-cropping forage: crabgrass during summer, winter pasture during winter, and crabgrass again the next summer, which fits well with demands of many horse forage needs. To make crabgrass most successful, give it winter-season tillage, summer fertilization, and rotational grazing. Management information is available from the Noble Foundation on request.

Crabgrass is considered part of the horse pasture family because

  1. the necessary tillage management should help control parasites and allow better winter pasture management;
  2. crabgrass allows better double-cropped winter pasture than other approaches;
  3. when perennials are killed by overgrazing and other problems, crabgrass could be reestablished annually;
  4. it could partly replace the summer annual void left by sudangrass or other forages;
  5. it is an exceptionally high-quality summer forage;
  6. it responds well to irrigation and is useful in small traps, runs, and paddocks around a horse headquarters facility where small-scale irrigation is available.

Several publications on crabgrass pasture management are available from the Noble Foundation (Dalrymple, 1999a).

Johnsongrass

Refer to Sorghum Grasses, Sudangrasses and Millets for johnsongrass information.

Native Grasses
The native range grasses are good horse forages. They are usually managed without fertilization, but weed control is recommended. Native grasses are considerably lower in production than well-managed introduced grasses. They are more susceptible to overgrazing and trampling, and because of their consistently medium to low quality, supplemental feed is often needed. That consistency may be one of the greatest advantages for horses because wide swings in quality are unusual. These grasses require three to ten times more acreage per horse unit for the same forage equivalent than properly managed improved grasses that are well fertilized.

Old World Bluestems
These grasses are introduced from various parts of the Old World. They are well adapted to Oklahoma and the surrounding regions and produce good high-quality pasture that is better suited to tight land than bermudagrass.

Varieties include 'Caucasian', 'Ganada', 'King Ranch', 'Plains', 'WW-Spar' bluestem, 'WW-Ironmaster', 'WW-B Dahl', and 'PMT-587'. 'King Ranch' and 'Plains' bluestem have been used successfully for horse pasture, and there is no reason why the others can't be used. 'Caucasian' bluestem is the most productive perennial tight-land grass available in our region. 'Plains' bluestem is widely adapted and has proven its forage use. 'Ganada' bluestem is a very dense, low-growing, Old World bluestem. It is more of a conservation bunchgrass because of its density and is expected to be more resistant to horse trampling and short grazing than other Old World bluestems because of its shortness.

These grasses are bunch grasses and, therefore, are more sensitive to overuse, trampling, and mudding-in (pugging) than bermudagrass. Grazing management is definitely more important with these grasses than with bermudagrass because they do not recover as well as bermudagrass after short-grazing and trampling.

These grasses can get ergot. Refer to "Poisonous Plant Considerations."

Bahiagrass
Bahiagrass is a sod-forming bunchgrass useful in southeastern Oklahoma, southwestern and southern Arkansas, and eastern Texas. It can be used like bermudagrass. Varieties available include primarily 'Pensacola' and 'Tifleaf 9'.