Managing horse pastures can be a daunting task for any horse owner but especially for those with limited farm and equipment experience. There are many different tools you can use to improve horse pastures; selecting the right ones and using them at the right time is the key to success. In this article we’ll explore different pasture management equipment and how and when to use them.
Mower A mower is the most common implement used on horse farms. Mowing is generally required in the spring and through the fall to remove excess forage and/or to reduce weeds, (although herbicides are generally more effective and economical to control weeds than mowing alone). Pasture mowers range from small riding mowers to 20-foot-wide batwing mowers. Consider your farm and tractor’s size when purchasing.
Chain harrow A chain harrow is a simple, low-cost tool used to distribute nutrients (i.e., manure) more evenly throughout the field, usually in the spring and the fall. Chain harrowing, or chain dragging, will bust up manure piles left by horses and spread the nutrients within the pile over a wider area. Parasitologists recommend doing this in the heat of the summer months so the sunlight and heat will kill parasites. However, weed specialists recommend against summer harrowing due to the potential of spreading warm-season weed seeds (i.e., crabgrass, nimblewill, ragweed, and thistle) around the field. Consider your field’s parasite load and weed pressure before deciding when to chain harrow.
Sprayer Sprayers are used to apply liquid herbicides or sometimes liquid fertilizers. They come in many sizes: large boom sprayers for large fields, small tank sprayers mounted on the back of all-terrain vehicles (ATV) for small farms/paddocks, or backpack sprayers for spot treatments. Be sure to read and follow all directions before applying herbicides, including washing out the sprayer afterwards and where to dump. Clean the sprayer after use to ensure it will function the next time you need it. Do not leave unused spray in the sprayer for extended periods of time.
Planting Preparation and Seeding
Disc Use a disc to break up sod and till soil before a complete pasture re-establishment. This will reduce surface compaction and unevenness, but will not bury weed seeds like a plow would. Take care when discing fields on a slope, as cover will be greatly reduced, increasing the chances for erosion. You can also use a disc without plowing for “light tillage” to simply loosen the soil surface in preparation for seeding. Frequent discing of pastures can result in a “plow layer” of compacted soil 4-6 inches below the soil surface, but this is generally not a concern in pastures disced infrequently (every four to five years).
Plow Modern plows are not the one-horse plows of the past, but they accomplish the same thing. Use them to turn the soil over in preparation for complete pasture re-establishment. This is helpful when soils are heavily compacted due to years of machinery traffic. It is unlikely fields in pasture production for many years will need to be plowed; however, plowing can be useful for fields that were previously used for other crop systems such as corn or tobacco. Plowing is also an effective way to bury seed from undesirable plants such as weeds and endophyte-infected tall fescue and provide a fresh soil surface for reseeding a pasture. Plows come in a variety of styles and sizes with each performing a slightly different function. Consider the field’s soil type and slope before plowing, as all cover will be removed and the potential for erosion loss will increase significantly.
Cultipacker A cultipacker has a set of heavy rollers and is used after plowing or discing to smooth the soil surface in preparation for seeding or to firm the seedbed prior to or after seeding. Some seeders are made with a seedbox and cultipacker combined into one unit. These are very effective for reseeding pastures after tillage (see Brillion seeders below).
Drag Also known as a drag harrow, this is an old cultivation implement. Drag are usually heavy and used to smooth the soil surface after plowing or discing. Large farms will likely have little use for a traditional drag but small farms might find them to be a low-cost alternative to other implements.
Drill seeder For pastures that are being completely re-established and seeded into a prepared seed bed (using a combination of plow, disc, cultipacker, and/or drag), it is best to use a drill seeder to put seed in the ground. A drill seeder will have some type of disc that rolls across the ground, making a small slit at the appropriate depth in the dirt. Seed will then fall from the seed box (hopper) into this slit. Because seeds will not germinate unless they have good contact with the soil, you might need to cultipack after drill seeding to close up this slit, unless the drill has packing wheels. Seeding depth is absolutely crucial, so check the drill seeder to ensure correct seed placement.
No-till drill A no-till drill is a valuable piece of equipment for most horse farms. This implement drills seed into ground that has not been previously worked up using a plow or disc. This allows overseeding (seeding into an existing pasture to increase thickness) or re-establishment (seeding into a pasture killed with herbicides) without the risk of significant erosion because it does not disturb or expose the soil. This is also beneficial in dry climates where plowing or discing would greatly reduce soil moisture. As with a drill seeder, it is very important to carefully adjust seeding depth.
Broadcast spreader These are simple funnel-shaped drums that mount on the back of a tractor or ATV and broadcast seed or fertilizer onto the ground. They are best used to spread granular fertilizers over pastures or seed clovers into a pasture late winter (known as frost seeding). When seeding cool-season grasses using a broadcast spreader, it is essential to follow with a cultipacker to ensure good soil to seed contact. When using a broadcast spreader for fertilizer applications, be sure to clean the equipment thoroughly and lubricate after each use as many fertilizers will cause corrosion.
Brillion seeder Brillion Farm Equipment makes a broadcast seeder/cultipacker combo implement; combining both tools into one machine reduces your number of trips over a field. This will reduce soil compaction, labor, and fuel costs, but you have to use the Brillion seeder in tilled seedbeds.
Notes on Seeding
You can choose from many methods to seed your pastures, and each requires different implements. Seeding into a plowed, disced, and cultipacked area (known as a prepared seedbed) will result in the greatest chances for successful establishment. However, this method is also more expensive due to added time and equipment needs and has the greatest chance of erosion and weed pressure. You can completely re-establish a field by killing existing vegetation using herbicides (applied with a sprayer) and drilling seed using a no-till drill. This method has great success rates when done properly, lower costs, and less risk of erosion issues. Finally, you can overseed pastures by leaving existing vegetation standing and adding new seed using a no-till drill. Overseeding is low-risk and low-cost, but is usually only beneficial in pastures that are thin. When overseeding, mow or graze close to the ground, as seeds will only germinate where light can reach the soil surface. Frost seeding is only recommended for clovers (using a broadcast seeder) in late winter. This allows the freeze/thaw cycle to slowly work seeds into the ground. For all seeding methods, seed placement is crucial and is often the difference between a successful establishment and a failed one. Cool season grasses should be placed 1/4-inch deep in the soil. Most seeders have charts and adjustable dials or gears for setting seeding depth, but always check the actual placement of seed because factory settings are not always accurate.
Renting or Contracting Equipment
Smaller farms might not find it economical to own pasture equipment that will not be used frequently. Contact your local county extension agent or NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) agent to see if renting equipment is possible from those agencies. They might also direct you to local farm supply stores that offer rentals or will contract work such as seeding.
Manure spreader A manure spreader can also be a useful pasture management tool. Load stall muck into the spreader in the barn and then spread on the field. Pastures benefit from the nutrients found in manure; however, the bedding material (usually wood shavings or straw) can harm pastures over time. Soil should have approximately two parts of carbon for every part of nitrogen (2:1 carbon/nitrogen ratio). Bedding materials often contain far more carbon and, if applied repeatedly over time, will result in a high carbon/nitrogen ratio in the soil. Compost stall muck first to greatly reduce the bedding's carbon, and then spread it onto the field using the manure spreader.
Core aerator Core aerators are commonly used on lawns and sports fields to reduce compaction by removing small plugs of soil and creating air pockets. Air pockets allow water to run into the soil faster, therefore reducing runoff and increasing soil moisture. Aerators also increase oxygen in the soil, promoting increased root growth. Core aerators are not commonly used in pasture situations and their true impact is not fully known. In most situations, core aerators are probably not worth the financial investment for pastures.
Spike aerator Spike aerators are a variation of core aerators that have heavy steel spikes that penetrate the soil to create similar air pockets. In theory, they aerate the soil similar to a core aerator but will increase compaction in wet soils or not penetrate deep enough in dry soils. Soil moisture status must be ideal for a spike aerator to be effective.
Electric fence In some areas of the country an electric fence is a pasture management tool, while in others its use around horses is taboo. The truth is that owners can use electric fence can safely with horses to greatly increase pasture utilization. First install a solid perimeter fence such as plank fencing or mesh wire. Then use electric fence to subdivide large pastures and implement rotational grazing or to keep horses out of part of a pasture during herbicide applications or re-establishment. Safe and effective use of electric fence includes proper installation and maintenance as well as proper introduction to horses that have not been around it before. For more information, look for a Bluegrass Equine Digest article on Electric Fences in February 2015 or our publication “Temporary Fencing for Horse Pastures” ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/id/id165/id165.pdf .
High-traffic area pads Also known as feeding pads, these pasture areas have been renovated to remove forages and are covered in a hard surface. You can use concrete or rock, but a combination of geotextile fabric and crushed limestone are best (and often less expensive). These pads create safe, solid footing in all weather conditions and reduce erosion and hay losses. These pads are ideal for gate and watering areas, hay feeding areas, or high-traffic fence lines. For more information, check out “High Traffic Area Pads for Horses” at uky.edu/ag/forage/foragepublications.htm.
Hay feeders Hay feeders are used to reduce waste and increase efficiency of feeding hay to horses in a pasture. Move hay feeders around the field to reduce hay feeding's negative impact on spring pastures. Hay feeders come in many sizes and shapes that can accommodate small or large square bales or round bales and any herd size. Using hay feeders in combination with high-traffic pads can greatly minimize hay losses and pasture impacts. Several companies now make covered hay feeders that are ideal for preserving hay quality during rainy weather.
Tractor or ATV Most of the tools listed in this article will require some type of machinery to operate. Large farms that need large implements will obviously need large tractors. However, small farms often do not have tractors. Many of the tools discussed in this article have been down-sized to fit on an ATV, greatly reducing the investment in equipment. Fortunately, most horse farms around the country are located near farm service dealers that rent equipment or will contract pasture management work such as spraying and seeding.
Ultimately, improved pasture management will increase the quality and quantity of forage available to your horses while reducing the need for stored feeds. Contact your local county extension agent for more detailed recommendations.
Krista Lea, MS, assistant coordinator of UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program; Ray Smith, PhD, professor and forage extension specialist; and Tom Keene, hay marketing specialist, all within the University of Kentucky Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, provided this information.