Carefully tending to your pasture in spring will improve plant health and productivity throughout the grazing season, providing your horses with good nutrition and even improving stocking rates – the number of animals your pasture can handle during a season. Consider the following when making your pasture management plans.
1. Plan ahead
Spring pasture management actually starts before the first forage – grass (Timothy, orchardgrass) or legume (alfalfa, clover) – emerges. Over winter, plan and price out upcoming pasture projects to determine what you can undertake and afford when spring arrives.
2. Frost seed
Frost seeding involves overseeding pastures on bare soil while the ground is still frozen. It allows seeds to be incorporated into the soil during the spring thaw to fill in bare areas, thicken overall growth and introduce new forage species. Legumes such as red and white clover tend to frost seed better than grasses.
Broadcast by hand or using a seeder mounted on an ATV or a tractor’s three-point-hitch. The species and seeding rates that are best for your situation will depend on the soil and pasture environment. Discuss your options with local agricultural specialists or feed store experts.
3. Soil test
Ideally, soil should be tested about every three years. Spring is a great time to do it. Tests identify the soil’s pH (acidity) and mineral levels and suggest recommendations for amendments such as fertilizers and lime that will encourage optimal growth. Contact your province’s agriculture department to find out how to obtain sample kits and have a soil analysis performed.
4. Apply necessary amendments
Based on the soil test’s results, add necessary amendments in the recommended amounts after any snow has melted.
Nitrogen (N) is critical for pasture quality and development and is associated with that lovely dark-green plant colour. Applying nitrogen early in early spring jump starts plant growth. Phosphorus (P) improves plant quality and root development. Potassium (K) helps the plant survive disease and stressful periods such as drought or freezing. These are ideally applied after the horses have first grazed. Horses should be removed from pasture until rain has washed fertilizers off the plant leaves and into the soil.
Lime balances the soil’s pH level. A pH greater than seven is alkaline (basic), less than seven is acidic. Soils that are too acidic compromise plant health and productivity. Lime, which is basic in nature, increases soil pH, making nutrients more available to forage plants and helping them tolerate stress. You can lime any time of the year, but note that it takes about six months to react in the soil, so plan ahead.
Again, consult with agriculture experts or your local feed store about how best to apply fertilizers and lime.
5. Hold your horses
Horses are often turned out on pasture too early in the year. Sharp hooves combined with wet spring soil, and delicate, just-emerging plants makes for a muddy, slick pasture that will ultimately become less productive. Also, lush spring grasses are high in moisture and nutrients and can cause colic and laminitis, especially after a winter of dry hay and grain. Ideally, horses should stay off pasture until the grass has grown to between 15 and 20 centimetres and the soil is dry and solid. Provide horses with a sacrifice paddock or dry lot where they can be turned out when their pasture isn’t available.
When it’s time, introduce horses to pasture slowly, over the course of a few weeks. During this adjustment period, it’s also a good idea to feed hay just before turning them out on pasture. With full bellies, they will be less apt to gorge. For horses prone to colic, laminitis and other metabolic disorders, consider keeping them off pasture for the first month of lush spring growth, then introducing them in 15- to 30-minute increments each day. Grazing muzzles also help limit spring pasture consumption. (See page 32 for more on transitioning horses to pasture in the spring).
6. Manure management
Manure is a natural fertilizer and should be used to your pasture’s advantage. However, resist harrowing or dragging manure or adding composted manure too early. Doing either before the soil thaws risks damaging dormant grasses and the manure/compost will just sit on top of the soil instead of being incorporated or will wash away with rain. Wait until mid- to late-spring when the ground is no longer soggy.
Harrowing not only breaks apart and spreads manure,
it also helps remove dead vegetation and aerates the soil. Apply composted manure at about one centimetre thick. Benefits include: improved soil structure, increased moisture retention, slow release of nitrogen, increased nutrient uptake by roots and encouraging the presence of microorganisms and earthworms.
7. Get rolling
Leveling uneven ground using a roller once the ground is firm and dry helps restore land pockmarked
by horse’s hooves during fall or winter’s wet conditions, especially around gates and feed and watering areas. Rolling after overseeding compacts soil to lock in moisture and establish seed-to-soil contact.
8. Check fences
Walk your fence lines, looking for damage that may have occurred over winter. Fix/replace wobbly posts and missing or broken boards, pound in loose nails. Replace or re-erect electric wire or tape and check that the charge is still strong all along the fence. Pick up debris or litter that may have found its way into the pasture. Also inspect all your gates, oiling hinges and making sure latches fasten securely.
9. Create rotational grazing
Dividing pasture into smaller paddocks to establish a rotation system is an excellent way to improve productivity. Spring is the perfect time to get the process started. Horses are selective grazers, meaning they eat the forage they like and leave the rest. Eventually, areas of preferred forage become overgrazed, destroying plants and their roots and leading to weed growth and soil degradation. Allowing a rest period of no grazing allows desirable plants to regrow and gives you an opportunity to mow and perform manure management for weed and parasite control.
Once a paddock has been grazed to eight to 10 centimetres, rotate horses to a fresh area. A paddock’s rest time depends on the speed of regrowth. In spring, this could be as short as a couple of weeks, while in dry, hot summer conditions it might be a month or more.
10. Weed watch
A healthy pasture should withstand most weed growth. Summer annual weeds overwinter in the soil and germinate in spring. Mitigation involves either hand pulling, mowing or herbicide application.
Well-timed mowing prevents weeds from producing seed and temporarily increases forage production.
However, it’s less effective in species that reproduce by underground roots and rhizomes (underground
horizontal plant stems). And, large, well-developed weeds can’t be controlled by mowing alone.
You can also identify and spray weed seedlings with an herbicide that’s effective on that specific plant. It’s important to carefully follow post-application grazing restrictions and reseeding intervals or, better yet, seek expert advice.