Achieving highly nutritious pasture is no small task – it takes year-round planning, cultivating and maintenance. This expert guide will get you started.
A herd of healthy horses quietly grazes on lush, green pasture under a big, beautiful sky. For horse people, this scene is as serene as it gets. Maybe this is your vision for the horses in your own care. Perhaps you’re thinking that all you need to do is find some good-looking grass, turn the horses out, and let them graze to their hearts’ content. Think again. Creating your perfect pasture requires a lot of planning and maintenance. You need to be knowledgeable about soil and plant care, grass cultivation, and what sorts of grasses grow best in your climate.
Maintaining your horses’ health also requires sensitivity to their needs at any given moment. According to the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Horses, equines need water, protein (amino acids), carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals to maintain health. But, like most things, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to the amounts of each needed by any one horse.
Factors such as equine workload, condition, age, health, stress, injury, breed (“easy” vs. “hard” keepers), as well as environment and weather all impact how much nutrition from each category a horse requires.
With all that said, equines require forage – they have a “trickle in” digestive system and can spend nearly 70% of their time grazing. In fact, it’s best if at least half a horse’s intake comes from forage, as this maintains his digestive tract. Good pasture, then, is critical to horse health.
If all this sounds overwhelming, well… it is and it isn’t. If you put the work in up front by understanding a few principles about nutrition, forage production, and how to manage your pastures season to season, producing healthy pastures becomes a routine – one you can certainly manage.
Can a horse survive solely on pasture?
Equine nutrition expert, Steve Jackson, would prefer it that way. He feels pasture is “the most appropriate way for these ‘wandering herbivores’ to acquire balanced, adequate nutrition.” Jackson should know – he’s the president of Bluegrass Equine Nutrition and has been a Thoroughbred consultant for 28 years, working with top stud farms all over the world, including Coolmore, Taylor Made, and Denali Stud.
So, let’s look at how you can design a pasture that offers optimal nutrition.
What you plant depends on where you are
According to Kathleen Crandell, who holds a PhD in equine nutrition and works with Kentucky Equine Research, the secret is a mixture of grasses, including both warm and cool weather varieties. “Here in Virginia, as in most temperate climates, a mixture of bluegrass, orchardgrass, perennial rye and tall fescue (if you aren’t grazing broodmares) works well,” she says, adding that you could include Bermuda grass or crab grass for production during the high heat of summer.
Other equine nutritionists, like Steve Jackson and Roger Allman, an agronomist in his 38th year of advising clients about pasture management, and owner of The Farm Clinic, provide more insight, breaking grasses down according to two broad U.S. zones, with Tennessee being the dividing line.
“North of Tennessee and across the country, cool season grasses predominate,” notes Jackson, “while south of that line, warm season grasses do best.”
Jackson feels cool season grasses are especially high in nutrient density. “In England, France, Japan, and areas of the U.S. (the more temperate climates), bluegrass, orchardgrass, brome grass, and fescue do well,” he notes. “Various cultivars of Bermuda grass, such as Tifton, do best in Florida, Alabama, across the south into Texas, and California.”
But warm season grasses are lower in nutrient value. Though experts differ on exactly how much protein each grass species delivers, Jackson notes that bluegrass can offer more than 20% protein, with additional digestible energy derived from its sugars and fiber content. Bermuda grass, on the other hand, has only 10% to 12% protein. He also notes that protein concentration is very dependent on nitrogen fertilization.
This is why, in warmer climates, most nutrients are delivered from hay bales rather than pasture, along with grain if necessary. In central Florida, around Ocala, three grasses predominate: Bermuda, bahia, and pangola. Bahia seems the preferred grass type because it’s good at withstanding heat and does well in less fertile ground, such as in the sandy regions of Florida.
In contrast, bluegrass predominates in areas like Kentucky, the Thoroughbred mecca of the world. “It’s difficult to make a mistake with bluegrass,” says Jackson, who feels it’s a great choice because of its nutrient availability, including adequate amounts of phosphorus and calcium, which are necessary for bone development.
David Crouch, who manages the pastures at prestigious Denali Stud, includes bluegrass in his array, planting ten pounds each of bluegrass and orchardgrass, plus five pounds of perennial rye. He uses 25 pounds in total per acre when renovating or over-seeding pastures.
If you’re starting a new pasture, Jackson recommends 60% bluegrass, 20% orchardgrass, and the rest annual rye as a “nurse plant” since it germinates and grows quickly, preventing erosion and allowing the other two to get a foothold. After year one, he feels bluegrass and orchardgrass are good choices.
But bluegrass goes dormant in the heat of summer, another reason why a mixture of grasses is best. Cool season grasses, such as bluegrass and orchardgrass, come on strong in areas such as Kentucky from April 1 to June 1, and from September through November, given adequate moisture. Orchardgrass tends to be more adept at staying vigorous in the summer; it can persist when bluegrass production diminishes.
Allman also advocates a mixture of bluegrass and orchardgrass for temperate climates, but for different reasons. “Bluegrass is lower in nutrition than orchardgrass, with around 12% to 18% protein and lower digestible energy from sugars, but it’s high in palatability,” he says, adding that orchardgrass can be as high in protein as 31%.
Why plant a mixture?
You might wonder why everyone advocates mixing grasses for pasture. It seems reasonable to think that if one type of grass is nutrient-rich, reliable, persistent, palatable, and grows well in your region, why not just go with it?
The obvious reason is they have different nutritional values and grow at differing times throughout the season. But there are two other considerations:
- Grasses have different growth habits. This means they will be grazed differently. For example, orchardgrass grows in bunches while bluegrass grows lower and more like a carpet. The spreading rhizomes help tighten the soil base and aid in weed prevention, the bane of the pasture manager’s existence.
- Horses make palatable choices in what they eat. Sugar content often influences their choices. (Yes, they love the sweet stuff too).
“Fescue grows during the summer, but the sugar content increases after a fall frost, so horses tend to eat it more at that time of year than in the summer,” says Crandell. Bluegrass, too, is not as palatable in the summer as in the spring and fall, likely due to the increased sugar content at those times of the year, as well as its diminished vigor during the heat of mid-summer.
Grasses produce sugars through photosynthesis, and the leaves are imperative in sugar production. Some grasses store sugar at their base, while others store it 2” to 3” from the soil. Orchardgrass, for instance, stores sugar higher on the stem than some other grasses, so it doesn’t flourish if grazed too low.
When horses graze grasses too low, it puts pressure on the root systems to support the plants’ viability, and they will eventually die, especially if this happens going into winter. To preserve your forage, experts have long advocated this rule: take half (the growth height) and leave half (the grass height post-grazing) while never allowing the grasses to drop below 3” in height.
As you can see, taking climate considerations into account, you can plant a mixture of grasses that will deliver highly nutritious pasture – and remember, forage is essential to equine health. So no matter how much or how little land you have, try to get your horses out on some palatable, high-impact grasses.