Although farm managers probably feel they're doing nothing but mowing pastures these days, experts say now is the time to take steps to ensure healthy pastures next year. The primary tasks to accomplish this goal are: rotational grazing, proper mowing, and preparation for fall maintenance and seeding.
Most importantly in the heat of summer, the root structure of the pasture has to be protected to keep forage from dying off. Two ways to accomplish this are by moving animals off pasture they have grazed down and by not mowing the pasture so short that the vegetation above the ground cannot sustain the roots.
“Rotational grazing is the best thing farmers can do to assure that their pastures are going to give them as much forage as possible and recuperate,” said Tom Keene, agronomy specialist with the University of Kentucky.
Rotational grazing is the movement of animals to another area when they have grazed down the area they occupy. Some farmers move the entire herd to a different pasture. Others use temporary fencing in large pastures to divide them into smaller sections for rotational grazing.
Cordoning off an area within your pasture can be accomplished easily if your horses respect electric fence. Temporary fencing can be moved around a pasture using plastic step-in posts and a solar fence charger. If electric is not an option, you can invest in vinyl fencing that slips over tee-posts and locks together to simulate a solid-looking wooden fence.
Keene said horse farms typically mow their pastures every ten days to two weeks, and that's too often. While mowing is helpful for weed control and to keep seedheads on the pasture from causing eye problems in horses, Keene said it would be better for the health of the pasture to mow just two or three times during the summer.
“When you look at a pasture — and this is a general rule of thumb — the vegetation you see growing, if it's three inches or six inches tall or whatever it might be, the root system under the soil pretty much mirrors the top growth [in length],” Keene said. “That vegetation is getting energy from the sun and building roots to go down and get moisture and nutrition. When we graze that or mow it, those new roots that have grown with the new top growth die back.”
Maintenance and Seeding
Mid-August through September is the time to lay the groundwork for lush, green spring pastures. This includes analyzing and preparing the soil and seeding. The first step in determining what nutrients your fields and paddocks may need to promote spring growth is to analyze the soil. Once you know the nutrients needed, you can purchase the right combination of nitrogen, lime, phosphorus, and potassium for spreading.
“We typically like to see phosphorus, potassium, and especially nitrogen put on in the fall of the year,” Keene said. “If we have a heavy population of animals, we might want to come back in the spring and put more on there.”
Keene said now is the ideal time to think about re-establishing a grazed-down pasture with the type of forage you want to grow there, such as killing off endophyte-infected fescue and replacing it with Kentucky bluegrass or orchardgrass.
“We want to start seeding those cool-season grasses in this region in mid-to-late August or very early September,” Keene said. “If we have a particular pasture that is heavily infected with fescue and we want to start from scratch, now is the opportune time to start spraying that with something like Roundup, or glyphosate, to kill the existing vegetation. You'll need to do that two or maybe three times in two-week intervals and then be ready to seed again toward the end of August.”
Keene stressed that when farms are spraying or spreading any kind of material, it should be done when the vegetation is dry.
“If it's a granular material, it will fall through to the soil surface, and if it's a spray, it will adhere to the leaf surface,” he said.
The individual needs of each farm depend on its geographic location and the environmental conditions present. Keene recommended contacting your county agent or university extension service for help and advice specific for your farm and region.
When taking soil samples, stay away from areas where horses defecate often, such as under shade trees or near water sources. Take at least ten subsamples from different spots around the pasture (a total of 1-1/2 quarts of soil) and place them in a clean plastic bucket. Break up the samples and mix them thoroughly together. From this mixture, remove enough soil to fill up the box provided by your county agent or testing laboratory.
If you have a specific problem area in your paddock or pasture, take a separate soil sample, consisting of ten subsamples, of just that small area for testing.
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