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Cool-season perennial grasses for horse pastures

Quick facts

  • Meadow fescue, endophyte-free tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass are recommended for Midwest horse pastures. 
  • Kentucky bluegrass, timothy and meadow fescue were the most preferred grasses by horses. 
  • Smooth bromegrass and timothy didn't last in horse pastures.

Cool-season grasses in the Midwest

four horses grazing in pasture

Cool-season grasses are the basis of productive pastures in the Midwest and Eastern United States. As selective grazers, horses may limit the yield and persistence of some pasture grasses. Their lips and tongues allow them to graze plants to a shorter height than other livestock species. 

As a result, forage yield and consistent growth are key when selecting grasses for productive pastures, especially for selective grazers like horses. We evaluate the forage yield and persistence, and horse preference of cool-season grasses while being grazed by horses. 

Meadow fescue, tall fescue (endophyte-free) and Kentucky bluegrass should be planted in Midwestern horse pastures as they strike a balance between forage persistence, yield, quality and horse preference. 

What did we do?

horse head closeup grazing

We grazed four adult horses on the following species in pure stands:

  • Creeping foxtail
  • Kentucky bluegrass
  • Meadow bromegrass
  • Meadow fescue
  • Orchardgrass
  • Quackgrass
  • Reed canarygrass
  • Perennial ryegrass
  • Smooth bromegrass
  • Tall fescue
  • Timothy

The horses grazed the research area for three consecutive days (8 hours per day) each month from May to October in 2010 and May to September in 2011. 

  • We evaluated grass maturity and persistence, measured yield and quality and then grazed the horses when most tall growing grasses reached 8 inches. 
  • We visually assessed preference and persistence after each grazing event. 
  • Following grazing, we removed manure, mowed remaining forage to 3 inches and allowed it to re-grow. 
  • We fertilized grasses with nitrogen in early April and mid-June and applied broadleaf herbicide once a year in spring. 

What did we find?

  • Under horse grazing, orchardgrass, meadow fescue, tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass were the most persistent (best ground cover) and highest yielding grasses.
  • Smooth bromegrass, creeping foxtail and timothy were the least persistent and lowest yielding grasses. 
  • Kentucky bluegrass, timothy and meadow fescue were the most preferred grasses.
  • Meadow bromegrass, creeping foxtail, reed canarygrass and orchardgrass were less preferred. 

Elizabeth Allen, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; Craig Sheaffer, professor of agronomy and plant genetics, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; Krishona Martinson, Extension equine specialist

Reviewed in 2019

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