Spring Pasture Care & Maintenance – Part 1

High-traffic areas of your pasture need attention every year.

High-traffic areas of your pasture need attention every year.

I have a written pasture plan for every field on the farms that I manage. That way there’s no guessing, everyone is on the same page, and maintenance isn’t forgotten.

I’m based in Kentucky, so I’ll use this region for my example in this blog. You can check with your local county extension agent or the land grant college in your state to learn more about the best time to seed and fertilize the pastures in your region.

Seeding Pastures

In this region the best time to seed is in the fall. There’s more chance of moisture to get the grass firmly established. However, there often are reasons that pastures need to be seeded in the spring.  High traffic areas may need to be refurbished regularly to prevent erosion and remove unsightly areas.  In the spring you should be aware that while you will get a stand of grass, it won’t be as sturdy as if you seeded in the fall, and it might not get the moisture it needs to stay healthy through the hot summer months.

If you must seed pastures in the spring, no-till seeding can be done earlier (February and March) than broadcast seeding (March and April). In Kentucky, I like to use a mixture of orchard/ryegrass grass (50%) and bluegrass (50%).  In established pastures my goal is to eliminate fescue. Fescue is a very tough grass and a favorite of cattle farmers. However, it can cause abortion and agalactia (lack of milk production) in pregnant mares. I try and keep my pastures at less than 30% fescue.

I have a written pasture plan for every field on the farms that I manage. That way there’s no guessing, everyone is on the same page, and maintenance isn’t forgotten.

Clover can be added to the mix in newly seeded fields (5%), but usually I have more clover than I want in established pastures. I find in this area it comes around by itself most of the time. While it’s not a bad grass for horses, it can be more of a problem than an asset because it covers over the grass and kills it. Some years, because of environmental conditions, clover is very abundant.

Soil and Fertilization

February and March can be a good time to fertilize your pastures in some parts of the country, but I don’t recommend it in Kentucky because it results in lush top growth. That requires you to mow more often. In April you’ll be wondering why you fertilized! You should take annual soil samples so you know exactly what each pasture needs. You can do this yourself and take them to your county extension office, or you can pay a professional service to do the job for you and make recommendations.

It's important that fields are mowed regularly and at the correct height.

It’s important that fields are mowed regularly and at the correct height.

I have my soil samples taken by The Farm Clinic (Roger Allman) each spring.  They take numerous samples in each field and paddock, then make recommendations section-by-section so that only the nutrients that are needed are applied. It can be a very big cost saving measure when you can determine which part of a field needs fertilized instead of applying fertilizer to the whole field (and it’s better for the environment that way). Stay tuned, because in my next two blogs I will present more detailed information on soil nutrients and care that Roger has shared with me, and that I have followed religiously over the years to create and maintain some of the best horse pastures you can have.

Mowing is my best choice for weed control. I try to keep the fields mowed before weeds get mature enough to go to seed and propagate.

Let’s go back to our discussion on pasture fertilization. By fertilizing in the fall you are strengthening the roots, which strengthens your stand of grass. That’s the best time in this region. Adding lime can be done any time it is feasible to allow the trucks into the fields. You don’t want those heavy trucks (even with extra-wide tires) into your fields when they are wet or they will compact the soil too much!

Weed Control

Mowing is my best choice for weed control. I try to keep the fields mowed before weeds get mature enough to go to seed and propagate. All fields should be mowed regularly to a height of six to eight inches. In our region during ideal growing conditions, this will mean mowing about every 10-12 days. Also, horses prefer eating shorter grass, which is more tender and lower in indigestible fiber.

High-traffic areas of your pasture need attention every year. That attention should occur year-around.

March/April is a good time to chain harrow and aerate your pastures. This allows you to get your tractor back in service after the winter layoff and be productive before it gets put to use mowing from dawn to dusk. Chain harrowing in the spring allows you to spread the manure and help dethatch your pastures. Doing this before weeds have had a chance to go to seed prevents the spreading of weed seeds around the fields.

I also like to aerate the fields in March and April. Aeration helps soils that have become compacted because of heavy traffic or machinery. Well-aerated soil allows water and fertilizer better access to the grass and soil. There are a variety of aerators with a variety of spiked tines. They are pulled across, or roll across, the ground depending on whether you are de-thatching or trying to loosen compacted soils.

High-traffic areas of your pasture need attention every year. That attention should occur year-around. During spring and fall you can re-seed in those high-traffic areas and erosion areas. When fields are rested (with nothing grazing on them), you can seed and cover the fields with your muck from the stalls. (You can use muck on the fields when there are horses present, but I do not like to spread all muck coming from the barns directly onto the fields. I will discuss this in more detail later.)

Feel free to send your questions to me at Ron@EquineManagement.com and I’ll try to address them in future blogs.