Sunday, May 30, 2010

Effective Pasture Management for Small Acreage Farms

By Darlene M. Cox

Living close to and working in the Horse Capital of the World (Lexington, Kentucky) provides me many opportunities to drive through 'horse country' and enjoy the beautiful picturesque views of horses grazing on rolling carpets of thick, lush, green grass from virtually weed-free pastures. These beautifully maintained pastures are in stark contrast to the ones that may be found on farms of smaller acreage that many recreational horse owners have. It is possible, however, for your small, family-owned farm to mirror, on a smaller scale, those Kodak-moment inspired pastures of Kentucky 's Thoroughbred industry.

I recently had an opportunity to converse with a senior grounds keeper of one of the more prestigious and renowned horse farms in Kentucky about pasture management and how effective pasture maintenance plans could be utilized for smaller farms. Regardless of the number of acres to be managed, it all boils down to the same fundamental practices:

§ Soil samples should be taken to determine fertilizer requirements. Based upon the testing results, a lime-potassium- phosphorous fertilizer should be applied. This application can be done at any time during the year; however, it is important to have the soil sample results prior to fertilizing, because applying too much fertilizer cause harm to soil. Nitrogen should be applied to pastures late in the fall to set up the pastures for a healthy growth of spring time grass.

§ Fecal egg counts should be done on your horses to determine the number of parasites that may infest pastures. Along with adherence to a timely and effective de-worming schedule for your horses, you should also 'drag' pastures to break up manure piles and expose any parasitic eggs to the sun, which will effectively kill off the parasite.

§ Begin preparation and planning of your spring pastures in the fall. If you seed your own pastures with your own implements, make sure the equipment is in good repair and ready to go. If you hire it out to someone, schedule a firm date with no more than a week's window time to ensure the pasture prep work is done timely. Fall is best for seeding cool-season grasses (Kentucky bluegrass, orchard grass) and late winter or really early spring is best for seeding clover.

§ Managing damage control to pastures on small acreage farms is tantamount to growing season productivity. During winter and the early spring wet season, horses should not be turned out, as to stave off the mud and muck build-up and destruction of grass root systems. One viable alternative is to partition off part of the pasture for use during inclimate seasons. The reasoning behind this is it's best to lose part of your pasture than all of it. If this is not a feasible solution, you can also minimize damage by rotating hay feeding locations. It is also a good idea to limit any vehicle traffic (i.e., farm truck, tractor, manure spreader, etc.) during this time period.

§ The acreage size and the number of horses on your pastures will affect the amount of usage you get from your pastures. It is important to maintain an appropriate horse-to-acreage ratio. Farms with smaller acreage need to be more closely managed related to the amount of grazing time permitted. Horses are the ultimate grazing machines, as they were created with that specific purpose in mind. Horses are continuous grazers; simply put, if grass is in front of theme, they are going to eat it. A horse will consume as much as 2% to 2.4% of their body weight, per day, in grass, (i.e., a 1200-lb horse will eat between 24 - 28 pounds of grass per day). Effective rotation and/or dry-lotting your horses to allow your pastures time to rebound and will help keep them established. Pasture rebound time can vary between location and time of year. Generally, 20 days minimum should be allowed for pastures to 'rest' before horses are placed back on them.

§ The grazing season in Kentucky can run from March (when the cool-season grasses really start coming on) through November (when the first killing frosts of winter arrive). This is nine months of grazing time that requires proper management to keep the grass yield and health of your pastures at an optimal level to best benefit your horses. An effective pasture rotation system can be undertaken with the implementation of segmented pasturing, which breaks up the whole pasture into multiple segments from which the horses will be rotated from one to the next, allowing previously grazed segments to recover and gain new grass growth, while out competing the growth of new broadleaf weeds. Effective rotation cycles will also disrupt parasite cycles.

§ An effective broadleaf weed herbicide should be applied in early spring, while the weeds are still small. A high emphasis is placed on properly using the herbicide and applying the recommended amount. As with any chemical, read and follow all labeling instructions prior to use. I realize that many owners of small farms may be hesitant to implement an herbicide program on their pastures for fear of harm that may befall their horses; however, the efficacy of herbicide programs is quite evident when looking at Kentucky 's horse farms, which house the world's most expensive Thoroughbred horses. It is evident and apparent that an accurate and efficient herbicide application program can be successfully implemented whereas not to adversely affect the lives and well-being of horses housed on these farms.

Utilization of the above pasture- management principals will aide in keeping your pastures healthy and established throughout the year. You may even have the perfect green back-fall for your own Kodak moment.

Happy trails!

1 comment:

dancilhoney said...

Nothing is too much trouble and their attention to detail, cleanliness and consciousness attitude is first class. paddock maintenance