Seasonal pasture to-do lists
While starting grazing in the spring may seem as easy as opening the gate, there are several items to consider. This list outlines 10 tips for preparing your pasture, and horse, for grazing.
1. Evaluate last year’s grazing system.
Think about how your pasture worked or did not work in previous years. Some items to consider include stocking rate, paddock size and shape, number of paddocks, amount of forage produced (e.g. yield), weed control, and fertility. Keeping a grazing log and using aerial images can help you optimize pasture growth and meet your pasture management goals.
2. Check fences.
Over the winter months, snow and wildlife (like deer) can damage fencing. Check all fences and make repairs as needed before starting spring grazing.
Also, make sure all gates are closed and latched.
3. Check water sources and equipment.
Ensure water sources and equipment are clean and in working condition.
4. Remove debris.
Walk the pasture and remove debris such as plastic and garbage that might have blown in over the winter months. This includes downed branches.
5. Take soil samples.
Take soil samples every three years to determine pH and fertilizer needs. You can take a soil sample as soon as the frost is out and the ground is dry.
Collect one soil sample per 20 acres of pasture if the management, topography, soil type, and plant species are similar. Sampling should occur from multiples sites within the pasture.
You can get soil testing kits from your county Extension office.
When applying fertilizer, it is best to apply half of the amount in early spring and the other half in the middle of June. The ideal time to fertilize is right before a gentle, soaking rain.
Keep horses off the pasture until you can no longer see the fertilizer pellets.
7. Control weeds.
Spring is a good time to control annual weeds. Mowing is usually sufficient for annual weed control, but you may need to use a herbicide. Always follow the directions and grazing restrictions listed on the herbicide label.
8. Evaluate your horse’s health.
Schedule an annual dental exam and vaccinations with your veterinarian. Test your horse’s manure to determine fecal egg counts and deworm accordingly. Proper deworming will reduce the parasite load in your horse and on your pasture.
9. Let the grass grow.
Keep the horses off pastures until the ground is firm and the grass has grown to 6 to 8 inches. Once the grass has reached this height, start acclimating the horses to the pasture in 15-minute, daily increments (15 minutes the first day, 30 minutes the second day, etc.) until you reach 5 hours of grazing. After that, unrestricted grazing can occur.
This gradual transition provides enough time for the horse’s microbial populations to adjust, which reduces the chance of laminitis and colic.
10. Make adjustments as needed and consider rotational grazing.
Grazing requires flexibility to respond to plant growth, which depends on weather conditions. Having a dry lot, multiple pastures, and practicing rotational grazing can help buffer adverse weather conditions. Rotational grazing also makes resting, mowing, fertilizing, controlling weeds, and dragging pastures more manageable.
Seed pasture grasses
August 15 to September 15 is the best time of year to seed or reseed your pastures. This time usually has good moisture, less weed competition, and cool, desirable weather conditions.
Common grass species used are Timothy, Orchard Grass, and Smooth Brome. Turf-type lawn grasses like Kentucky bluegrass can be used for higher traffic areas and serve as a good base for your pasture.
Take soil samples
See if your pastures need any nutrients. Anytime from now until the ground freezes is a good time to take samples because the soils are drier and more stable. The plants have also taken up the majority of nutrients for the season.
Contact your county Extension office or the University of Minnesota Soils Lab for a sample kit. The lab's phone number is 612-625-3101.
Dispose of manure
When fertilizing your pastures with manure, sample the manure first so you know how much to spread. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has a list of Certified Manure Testing Labs. Only spread manure on your pastures if you have more than two acres per horse. Spreading more manure (other than what your horse leaves behind) can result in greater chances of parasite exposure.
The MDA requires you to remove your manure pile once a year. If you can’t spread it on your pasture, hire a local farmer or landscaper to remove the manure for you.
Test your soils first before fertilizing. Often, pastures only need nitrogen since manure provides phosphorus and Minnesota soils tend to be higher in phosphorus and potassium. Use compost or a commercial fertilizer, and be sure to drag manure piles.
Fall is the time to control perennial weeds with an herbicide. Perennial plants start storing nutrients in their roots for winter. As the nutrients enter the roots, so does the herbicide. The herbicide then has the best chance for a successful kill.
It’s best to mow the perennials throughout the summer so they can’t mature. Herbicides usually work best on re-growth or plants that are four to eight inches tall. Mowing three to four times throughout the year will help control weeds, but never mow your pasture shorter than four inches.
Make sure your fences are in good shape before the snow flies. Pay special attention to posts, and fix any broken posts before the ground freezes.
Rest the pasture
If you have an overgrazed pasture, rest it for the remainder of the year. Rest will give the grass a chance to store up nutrients for next year. These nutrients will allow the pasture to be healthier in the spring. On average, a pasture needs 30 days of rest after one to two weeks of grazing. The length of rest depends on:
- Time of year
- Number of horses
- Quantity and quality of forage
- Soil health
Pasturing horses over winter can cause damage to plants and offers the horse no nutrition. Keep your horses in a sacrifice paddock where they have access to hay, water, and shelter if possible.
Prepare to take animals off during frosts
Hoof traffic after a frost can damage grasses. Have a sacrifice area set aside where the horses can be held until the grass thaws.
Make sure your hay storage area is free from leaks and rodents.
Reviewed in 2022