Spring is the time of year when nature wakes up from its slumber and life emerges again. For our pastures, this means fresh green growth begins to sprout from the earth. While pastures are always an excellent source of forage for horses, horse owners are advised to exercise caution in the spring.

In our Transitioning Your Horse to Spring Pasture article, we offer some tips on how to safely change over your horse from their winter diets. Briefly, the young new growth of spring grass and legume plants are high in sugars. To ensure your horse does not suffer digestive upset or other health issues, it is suggested you slowly transition your horse onto spring pasture.

Where you live will determine which cool season plants are appropriate for your pastures.  Factors such as climate, rainfall, soil type, plant variety, and even soil nutrients all play key roles in influencing which plants can survive and thrive. Typical cool season grass forages and their characteristics for horses in North America include:

  • Kentucky Bluegrass
    • Optimal growth when temperatures rise above 60°F (15°C).
    • Growth halts when temperatures reach near freezing 32°F (0°C).
    • High nutritional value with range Crude Protein (CP) 12-17% and Digestible Energy (DE) 0.86 to 1.04 Mcal/lb.
  • Ryegrass
    • Optimal growth when temperatures rise above 68°F (20°C).
    • Growth halts when temperatures drop below 41°F (5°C).
    • Moderate to high nutritional value with range CP 11-17% and DE 0.82 to 1.0 Mcal/lb.
  • Timothy
    • Optimal growth when temperatures rise above 65°F (18°C).
    • Growth halts when temperatures drop below 50°F (10°C).
    • Moderate nutritional value with range CP 11-15% and DE from 0.82 to 1.04 Mcal/lb.

Typical legume forages in North America and their characteristics for horses include:

  • Alfalfa
    • Optimal growth when temperatures rise above 65°F (18°C).
    • Growth halts when temperatures drop below 40°F (4°C).
    • High nutritional value with range CP 18-22% and DE from 1.0 to 1.2 Mcal/lb.
  • Clover (White)
    • Optimal growth when temperatures rise above 70°F (21°C).
    • Growth halts when temperatures drop below 40°F (4°C).
    • High nutritional value with range CP 15-22% and DE from 1.0 to 1.3 Mcal/lb.

Similar to your warm season forages, cool season grasses and legumes need proper management to ensure optimal productivity. For example, over-seeding and fertilizing your pastures is helpful in thickening overall coverage of the plants and helps rehabilitate bare spots. Some general pasture tips to ensure solid growth of your forage plants include:

  • Generally, cool season grasses and legumes should not be seeded in the spring, but rather in the fall. This allows the plants to get established and they will remain dormant over the winter. An exception would be any area in the far north with extended cold winters and heavy snowfall. Here, over-seeding should take place in the early spring.
  • Likewise, your warm season forages should be seeded later in the spring (mid-May) once the danger of frost has passed.
  • Before fertilizer is applied, it is always recommended to get a soil test (local extension office can help) to determine which nutrients are needed. Usually, spring pastures may only need a light application of nitrogen. A soil sample test will also help determine if additional phosphorus, lime, or other plant nutrients are needed.

Another major management practice is to always monitor your pastures to maintain optimum productivity. Again, this will depend on what types of plants are in your individual pasture and what region of the world you live in. However, here are some universal tips to help maintain productivity.

  • Only allow horses to graze when the plants reach a minimum height of 6 inches (15 cm).
  • The height of the plants in a horse pasture should generally not exceed 8 to 9 inches. This ensures plants are not too mature and have adequate nutrients.
  • Pastures where plants exceed 9 inches should be mowed down to this height.
  • Plant height across most pastures should not be allowed to be grazed below 3 to 4 inches. This ensures plants can recover and prevents overgrazing.

Proper pasture management in the spring does require some extra labor and monitoring from horse owners. However, with a careful plan, horses do very well on spring pastures. The nutrients provided are widely beneficial to the horse’s overall health and nutritional status. If you are concerned about your spring pasture management plan, you can always contact us for advice or to answer any of your questions.
 

Chris J. Mortensen, Ph.D.