Spring brings warmer temperatures, green grass and spring flowers. It also means that if you own livestock, you will begin a new grazing season, allowing you the opportunity re-think your pasture management program.
April and May are critical months in the growth of a grass plant. It is important to protect the spring growth from early defoliation by grazing livestock. Over grazing your pastures too early in the growth cycle, will cause the root system to decrease in mass and size until they die off, creating the ideal environment for undesirable plants take over.
Sustainability of your pasture will be determined by your commitment to manage your pastures for forage health. When developing a pasture management program, consider the present resources and goals. Have you had your soil analyzed? Do you have enough forage to support the number of livestock?
Once pastures have been established (18-24 months after planting), sound pasture management is critical for maintaining a healthy and vigorous sod that benefits the horse, owner, and environment.
- Soil Test Pastures - Pastures should be soil tested every 2-3 years in order to provide a baseline for tracking changes in pH and fertility.
- Maintain Adequate Soil PH - Soil pH can dramatically affect nutrient availability and plant growth.
- Maintain Adequate Phosphorus and Potassium - Phosphorus and potassium should be maintained in the high range as determined by soil testing.
- Distribute Manure Piles - Drag pastures to distribute manure piles and encourage uniform grazing.
- Provide Adequate Acreage Per Number of Horses - If land area is limited, grazing must be controlled to maintain healthy pastures. Generally you want at least one acre per horse to assure adequate grazing and proper management. With a higher stocking rate than this, the pasture really becomes more of an exercise lot rather than a source of feed.
- Subdivide Pastures - Subdivide your pasture and graze them rotationally. This involves the division of pasture into several subunits so the horses can be rotated through the system at a rate in which grass growth is matched with horse needs.
- Rest Pastures - Allowing a rest period for pastures is critical. Recovery time for grass ranges from 10 to as many as 60 days, depending on season, weather and soil characteristics.
- Rule of Thumb - Graze animals when grass is 6 - 8 inches high and allow the grass to rest when it is grazed down halfway (3-4 inches high). This process will help in faster re-growth and helps maintain a vigorous sod.
With regards to fertilizing, the best advice is to soil test your pastures to discover the activity (pH) and the nutrient levels in your soil. If the pasture is new or has not received fertilizer for many years, you may wish to test for 2-3 years in a row to establish a healthy fertility level. After that, a test every 2-3 years is sufficient. Your local State Agriculture Department should be able to point you in the right direction for advice and where to get the soil tested. Testing your soil is the only way you can be sure what level and type of fertilization is necessary.
Horses should be removed from pastures when nitrogen based fertilizers are being applied and should not be returned to the pastures until adequate rainfall has removed the fertilizer from plant tissues and drained all nitrogen from the soil surface into the ground. Generally approximately ½ inch of rainfall is sufficient to dissolve granular nitrogen; less is needed when the fertilizer is in liquid form. Under ideal circumstances, it is best to leave the horses off the pastures for at least 1-3 weeks after fertilizing the grasses to allow time for the grass to re-grow.
For further information contact your State Agricultural Department.