Forages for Horses

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Good management of horse pastures can easily provide almost all dietary requirements for the average pleasure horse. Good management can greatly extend the grazing season, greatly reducing hay needs. Horses on poor pasture will require supplemental feeding, whereas those on well-managed pastures can successfully meet their nutrient requirements from forage alone. By adding legumes, such as clovers, forage production will increase without additional fertilizer inputs, based on their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. Horses grazing well-managed pastures will also remain in better condition and tend to be healthier as well.

Horses, being selective grazers, greatly influence the productivity of a given pasture. Preferring young, immature plants, they will often graze these down to bare soil. Where less desirable plants occur, they will reach maturity, as they are not grazed, and decline in nutrient availability, and become even less palatable. This is why horses are termed spot grazers. Horses will also refuse to graze in areas where they defecate, leaving these areas underutilized as well.

Productive horse pastures begin at establishment. Whether you are seeding a new pasture or renovating an existing one, a soil sample should be the first step. By using soil test recommendations, you can adjust soil pH and fertility levels to optimum levels, greatly improving seeding success.

By choosing forage species that are adapted to our soils, and climate, you can also improve long-term pasture survival. Horse pastures should be productive over a long growing season, highly palatable, and able to compete with other undesirable plants for sunlight and nutrients. No one forage species can excel at all these characteristics, so mixtures tend to be best in horse pastures. Permanent pastures usually best supply needed forage, while those with additional acreage can make use of temporary annual forages. Studies have shown that horses prefer Kentucky bluegrass; however, Burke County is on the edge of the bluegrass belt. We can, with proper management, get it to grow successfully. Bluegrass in mixtures, with tall fescue and Orchardgrass, helps provide a dense, solid turf, which is very palatable and heals easily from damage. Bluegrass does best on more neutral soils, but produces less forage than other grasses and slows down tremendously during the hot summer months.

Cool season grasses, such as tall fescue and Orchardgrass are higher yielding. These grasses, however, if allowed to mature, greatly decline in nutrient content and palatability. Newer endophyte friendly and endophyte free varieties of tall fescue have a higher palatability and lessen problems with endophyte toxicity. These grasses don’t take close grazing very well, as plant reserves are stored in the crown, close to the soil.

Legumes added to pastures, help improve soil fertility, and provide higher nutrient levels to horses. Slobbering, always a concern to horse owners can be minimized by keeping clover levels to 35-40% of the forage mixture. The addition of clovers or other legumes will also reduce nitrogen requirements of a pasture, and since horses don’t bloat, legumes such as clovers, lespedeza and alfalfa, can and should be utilized.

Try to keep pasture mixtures simple. Two grasses and one legume species is a starting point. Managing grazing of horse pastures is key to their success. While bluegrass can be grazed down to 2-3 inches, tall fescue and Orchardgrass should be left at a height of 3-4 inches. Pasture systems with pure grass stands are useful for early spring and fall grazing, while legume-grass mixtures provide excellent mid-season grazing.
Manage pastures to benefit forage stands and horses. Forage species have high energy and protein levels prior to maturity, but these diminish greatly at heading. Graze pastures to prevent forage species from attaining seed heads. Controlled grazing helps to prevent heading out and allows rest periods for your forages. Overgrazing and less commonly, under grazing present pitfalls to horse pastures. A small number of large horse pastures is hard to manage. Usually, some areas are overgrazed, while other areas are under grazed and become mature. Try to divide pastures into smaller paddocks, and rotate horses through on a schedule to manage forage maturity.

Horses, as opposed to cattle, bite grass cleanly leaving a short stubble height. Low growing species such as Bluegrass and white clover thrive in this scenario. But, by rotating pastures and controlling how close tall fescue and Orchardgrass are grazed, these varieties can thrive as well. Always scatter droppings, clip or mow excess growth for hay, and if possible, shift salt and watering areas to maximize forage utilization.

The most important and most often ignored aspect of horse pasture management is stocking rate. How often do we buy a horse or add an additional animal, and then worry about the pasture. The body weight of horses grazed on an acre, or stocking rate, must be in an acceptable range to manage forage stands successfully. One 1000 lb. horse per 2 acres is generally recommended. With all other factors being the same, two 500 lb. horses could be grazed per 2 acres.

Companion grazing is another underutilized management tool often overlooked by horse owners. Grazing horses with other species, be it cattle, sheep or goats, promotes better forage utilization, as one species will graze closer to manure of another species than they will their own. In turn, when one species ingests the parasites of another, the life cycle of the parasites ingested is interrupted, and effectively eliminated, and vice-versa.

So give some thought to establishing a new pasture or renovating an old one, and incorporating a forage management system for your horses that is profitable, productive, and captures cost savings for you in the process.