|Equine Facilities & Property Management - Pasture
Expert Amy Russell
Questions (For answers, scroll down or click on
I am about to become a first time horse owner and have around seven and one half acres. The primary home for the horses will be the pasture until a barn is erected. My question is: Where do I put the manure? Can it just be fenced in the back corner of my land or must it be dumped somewhere? I'm not sure I understand completely the do's and don'ts of keeping a horse at pasture.
I'm landscaping around my equestrian facility and have searched the Horse Owner's Field Guide to Toxic Plants but don't find any of the nursery's recommended plants listed as toxic. How can I be sure that I'm not planting something that will be a problem if a horse escapes his stall or pasture and ends up in the "cultivated" space? What about sheep fescue? Potentilla? Savin Juniper?
My horse recently colicked and had diarrhea from something he ate in the field. He is generally picky and the other three horses didn't get sick. What weeds in Virginia might cause a horse to colic and will mowing help?
can I find information on the best way to get rid of the weeds and have a
nice grass pasture? What type of grass and what type of weed killer, etc.?
Questions and Answers
A: Create an environment that allows pasture plants to grow. Take a soil test to determine the current levels of minerals (fertilizer needs) and pH (acidity or alkalinity). Your county Cooperative Extension Service should have inexpensive soil test kits and can interpret the test results. From these results you will know how much to fertilize and lime to meet the needs of pasture plants in your area. If money is tight, improve a small area completely rather than spread inadequate amounts on the entire pasture. Pasture improvement takes time so dont expect to have things in order by the end of the weekend. Plan on several months to do the job right.
A: The answer varies upon where you live. Soil types, rainfall, and temperature ranges play a big part in determining what can survive. The most productive pastures have a blend of legumes (such as clover, vetch, lespedeza, trefoil or "grazing" alfalfa), and grasses (such as orchardgrass, bormegrass, or timothy). Avoid fescue because it frequently contains a fungus that causes foaling and growth problems. Your county Cooperative Extension Service can recommend plants for your area. It is NOT recommended that you buy a commercial "pasture mix" from a farm supply store because that may have plant seeds that are not suitable for your farm. Apply the seed at suggested rates or even go a little heavier. It is cheaper to apply to much seed than to re-seed.
A: This answer depends upon your local zoning requirements, growing conditions for your pasture plants and your personal expectations. A very basic rule of thumb for the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region is: 500lbs per acre. So a 1,000 lb. Horse would require 2 acrres. Areas with little rainfall, such as the Southwest, may require 50 acres per horse. The range can be extreme. You can help small pastures tolerate many horses by irrigating, pulling horses off when the ground is wet and soft, properly fertilizing and liming, providing hay and moving the hay/water/salt around to change traffic patterns. Ideally you want to graze the plants down to 1 inch and let them grow to 6 inches.
Q: What would you suggest by way of a broader leaf grass (other than fescue) that would be tolerant to drying out, in a section of sandy versus clay soil, but which may see a period of heavy moisture for a month or two?
A: Pasture location is a big factor in recommending a specific grass. Your county Cooperative Extension Service can give specifics for your immediate area. In general, no grass will do especially well with the conditions you describe. The following is a summary of grasses that might work for you.
Fescue is tough and the best grass to survive your conditions. Most native fescue is contaminated with endophyte fungus. The fungus helps the plant fight off insects and disease and can be irritating to horses. Broodmares and young horses should not be exposed to fescue because it causes problems with foaling and growth. Horses are selective grazers and fescue mixed with other forages greatly reduces endophyte problems.
Reed Canary grass. New varieties taste much better than older varieties and many are productive under dry conditions. Reed Canary grass does not tolerate heavy grazing well. One researcher told me that 5 cuttings a year for hay literally killed one stand of Reed Canary grass but only 4 cuttings left another stand healthy and ready for the next year. A new variety called "Palatin" is especially palatable.
Big Bluestem and Indiagrass: Native prairie grasses that can grow very, very tall in the Mid-West. Personally, I have no experience with horses grazing these grasses, just cattle. They are drought tolerant and perform well during extreme heat of summer
Avoid forage sorghum, sudangrass, sudangrass hybrids and millet. These grasses, while very productive during dry conditions, can produce "prussic acid" or cyanide when stressed. Your horses certainly don't need that.
A: The only type of alfalfa that will work in a pasture is one specifically developed for grazing. Alfalfa grown for hay does not work well for pastures. One big hoof placed on the "crown" or center growth spot can kill the whole plant. Grazing varieties of alfalfa, however, are quite nice for pastures. These varieties have been selected over years for tolerance to grazing, they tend to have a lower crown so it is protected by the soil and less vulnerable to trampling. Also grazing varieties are less stressed by loss of stems and leaves. One variety called "Alfagraze" has been developed over a very long time and seems to be the most productive. Studies show it makes as much forage as the hay varieties of alfalfa. All alfalfa varieties are deep rooted and do well with medium to light rainfall. Your wet month or two might stress alfalfa; try to keep your horses off at this time. Grazing alfalfa works best when mixed with grass and not grown as a pure stand.
A: Auburn University. They have test kits with directions on how to collect samples. Their address is: Fescue Toxicity Diagnostic Center, Plant Disease Laboratory, Auburn University, AL 36849. The cost for analyzing a sample ranges from $25 - $30 for out of state and $15 - $20 for residents of Alabama. I do not have a contact person or an e-mail address so I'm afraid you will have to write them for a copy of the sampling procedure and data form. Remember though, it is a pretty safe assumption that your fescue is contaminated with endophyte fungus. If it is native to your area and is healthy, green and growing vigorously, then it probably has the fungus. My limited experience with endophyte-free fescue convinced me that is not a solution. One farmer did everything right and his endophyte-free variety looked sick the first year and died the second. Until I see better results I can't recommend that option.
A: Horse pastures have their own unique strengths and weaknesses including the demands of grazing, hoof traffic and different growing conditions. Zoysia is a grass that makes a wonderful lawn but has many weaknesses when considered as a pasture plant. It is tough and can tolerate harsh growing conditions and heavy traffic. This toughness also means it isn't very tender and doesn't taste very good. It is resistant to insects and diseases. The plant accomplishes this by producing some toxic substances which repel pests but can also irritate your horse. There is a nasty pattern here - features that make Zoysia a tremendous lawn grass also make it highly undesirable for pastures. I would recommend staying away from this grass and choosing another that is more suited for your region and the needs of your horses. Check with your local county Cooperative Extension Service for suggestions on grasses and legumes that can work for you.
Q: I live in North Florida. I am reseeding my pastures. We are stuck with bahia grass as the main forage, because of the sandy soil. Is there any kind of clover that I can plant along with it that is safe for the horses and will grow in this climate?
A: Clover is not a deep rooted type of legume so it won't thrive in a dry, sandy environment. Alfalfa originated in dry desert climates; it has a deep tap root and tolerates dry weather quite well. There are several grazing varieties of alfalfa that may work for you, traditional "hay" varieties don't perform well with heavy hoof traffic. Check with your local county Cooperative Extension Service for recommendations suited to your growing environment. Be sure to emphasize that this is for a horse pasture.
Q: My husband and I are in the process of purchasing 5 acres of property which has a lot of brush (thistle weeds). What plants are hazardous to horses? What type of grass seed should we plant in the pasture?
A: Many poisonous plants are unique to an area or the current growing conditions. Check with your local county Cooperative Extension Service (CES). They can help you identify plants that grow in your area which are poisonous to horses. "Stress" can also cause plants to change and produce toxins. Stress may be a severe drought, heavy rain, first hard frost, or even the first rain after a long dry spell. Some plants, not all, create deadly toxins when they are stressed but over time the toxins are metabolized or removed from the plant. A good precaution is to fill your horse with quality feed (especially hay) before your turn him out on pasture. He will be less likely to gorge on the first plant he sees. Most content horses are selective grazers and will avoid poisonous plants.
I would also recommend you contact your local county CES agent for grass seed recommendations. Your soil type, rainfall, shade/sun, growing degree days and other conditions are unique to your area and a local expert can best help you. In general it is best to mix legumes with grasses in a pasture. The two types of plants compliment one another and perform better than if you had just one.
If your county CES agent is not familiar with horses and their unique needs, the agent has contacts with state specialists who can help you. These people are excellent sources of information and you should get to know them. Best of all, it is free!
A: Yes, as long as you use them properly and follow recommended precautions. Fertilizers are often salts in granular form. I would recommend that you keep the horses off the newly fertilized pasture until you have had about 1 inch of rain (or irrigation) to dissolve the fertilizer and let it move into the soil. Horses craving salt may search out the fertilizer and eat a deadly amount if it is just sitting on top.
There are many different types of pesticides and they can be deadly to horses and humans if used improperly. Insecticides are the most deadly while herbicides are less dangerous. Zero in on what you want to treat, talk to your county Cooperative Extension Service agent or a farm supply store pesticide applicator and follow directions carefully. Remember, pastures are not gardens. Get your local advice from someone who is familiar with pastures and horses.
Q: I am looking for a list of some of the plants that are poisonous to horses. I live in Ontario, Canada and have a horse that has suddenly come up lame behind. All the muscles of her hindquarter are sore to the touch. She is a broodmare who is turned out daily so I was wondering if a poisonous plant might be the problem.
A: What you have described is a serious problem and should be looked at by a veterinarian. Many factors could lead to your mare going lame and becoming sore, but you must look at all the possibilities. Please work with your vet to diagnose the problem and locate it's source.
For a listing of poisonous plants that can be harmful to horses, I would recommend you contact the University of Guelph in Ontario. They are the agricultural university in your province and will know what plants grow in your area and under what conditions they may become harmful. Ask them for any additional information they may have on horse care and management. Agricultural universities are an excellent source for all kinds of information.
A: Endophyte fungus is so common in fescue that you can probably assume your foal is exposed to it. The good news is that horses are selective grazers and will happily choose other grasses and legumes found in your pasture. Fescue has a tough texture and doesn't taste very good to horses. You need to provide alternative forages to your colt so he isn't forced to eat large amounts of fescue. Check to see what forages are growing your pasture: 25% fescue, 75% other pasture plants should not be a problem. Consider providing hay to horses out on pasture, feed them prior to turn-out and if fescue levels are extremely high, consider reseeding your pasture with alternative grasses and legumes. Fescue is probably native to your area and there are millions of unsprouted seeds in your soil. If this is the case, you will never have a fescue free pasture so accept that and learn to live with it.
Your foal is less likely to be affected by the fungus than a developing foal in a mare. The fungus mimics hormones and alters the way the placenta functions. High levels of endophyte fungus could hurt your yearling foal's development but he shouldn't eat high levels if he has other feeds available to him.
A: Oak tree leaves can sometimes present a problem. The leaves can accumulate toxins in the early spring and during stressful times for the tree. A stressful time might be the tree experiencing a drought, the first hard frost in the fall, or if a branch breaks off and those leaves start to wilt. In general, horses won't be interested in eating oak leaves, especially if they have a stomach full of quality hay or pasture. Check your pasture for any fallen branches after a storm and remove them. Some horses may nibble the leaves out of curiosity or boredom and foals are famous for their curiosity. Remove acorns and fallen branches, provide plenty of quality feed, and you shouldn't have any problems.
Q: I have a 2 year old mare and we are having problems finding someone to plow and plant our pasture. There are a lot of weeds and some coastal growing now. Will it be allright to put her on it till next year?
A: I assume when you say "coastal" you mean coastal bermudagrass. Some people feel that coastal bermudagrass can cause impaction colic in horses. This forage typically runs high in lignin content which is a type of fiber horses (and other animals) cannot digest. All forages increase their amount of lignin as they mature so plants that have had a full growing season will be high in lignin. Any forage high in lignin can cause impaction colic but coastal bermudagrass tends to make more lignin than other common forages. Horses that graze just coastal bermudagrass in the winter may dig up and eat the large roots called rhizomes which may be covered with sand. Some experts feel that this is the source of the problem and the horses eating exclusively coastal bermudagrass pastures suffer from sand colic.
If your pasture is weeds and coastal bermudagrass, your horse will probably avoid the weeds and graze just the coastal bermudagrass.
I would suggest you find someone who can help you identify the plants in your pasture. Check with your County Cooperative Extension Agent or farm supply/feed stores sales staff. This person may also know others who can help plow and plant your pasture.
A: Fresh manure can have parasite eggs and other pathogens so it must go through changes to eliminate those problems. Properly composted manure "cooks" those pathogens and is safe to spread back on your field.
To compost manure, you should pile it in layers of manure, lime, and water, repeat. Lime can be sprinkled on, it shouldn't be thick like a snowstorm, just a heavy dusting. You add a little water to increase the moisture level to around 50-60%, this helps the microbes actively ferment the manure. Fermenting is a hot process and temperatures should reach 140 degrees F in a day or two. If the pile is too dry, the fermentation can suck in oxygen and get really hot, even starting a fire. At 140 degrees F for several days, you will effectively kill dangerous pathogens.
If possible, you should let the pile ferment for a week, fork it over into a new pile and let it ferment for another week. This rolling over of the pile gives new life to the microbes and assures the manure will be thoroughly fermented. Consider adding more water if necessary. Also, rolling the pile will break the cycle of fly eggs that may be developing on the cool edges of the compost.
Gardeners love quality compost. They call it "black gold". If your pastures are overstocked (too many horses), consider giving away some compost to neighbors. This can build great relationships and make happy neighbors.
A: Growing conditions are completely affected by your local situation so your best starting point is your local county Cooperative Extension Service (look under the blue Government pages in your phone book). These folks are directly connected with your State Land Grant University so they can tell you about current research, past seed variety performance, and give you the most accurate information on grasses and legumes to grow in your pasture. Here you will get unbiased information since they have no products to sell you. Be sure they know you need information for horses. Some grasses work well with cattle but are undesirable for horses. They can also get you a soil test kit which may have a nominal fee. Knowing your pasture soil is important for a safe, accurate fertilizer recommendation. The Extension Service can also recommend weed control methods that will work best for you. It may be a combination of spraying and mowing. Pesticides that work on weeds are also called herbicides. Herbicides tend to work specifically on plants so generally they are the safest type of pesticide to work with and are the lowest hazard to your horses and yourself. If you decide to use a herbicide, buy from a farm supply store and not a home and garden store. The price will be better and the product will be designed for pastures, not lawns.
A: A good thumb rule is: most ornamental plants are not healthy to horses. If it's "pretty," grows well, is highly resistant to bugs and disease, then it probably produces some sort of toxin that helps it survive; this same toxin will hurt your horse. Listing other poisonous trees and shrubs is a bit tricky. Many common plants can be dangerous under certain conditions. Sudden frost, long hot spells in summer, early spring growth, drought, first rain after drought - these are all "stressful" conditions to plants and toxins may be produced. Your County Cooperative Extension Service should have a list of dangerous plants that grow in your area. Remember too, some parts of a plant may be more dangerous than others. Example: if toxins are concentrated in the seed, frequent mowing keeps the plant from producing seeds and the danger is removed. Did you know that most of a tomato plant is poisonous? Just the tomato is safe to eat! Also, it is a good idea to always feed your horses hay before tuning them out onto pasture. A belly full of hay will limit the amount of pasture (and potentially poisonous plants) your horse can eat.
A: The County Cooperative Extension Service is a good start. I have also found that the Merck Veterinary Manual has a nice listing of many common poisonous plants. That book goes into detail stating which animals suffer from the toxins and treatments if exposed to the toxins. You can read a review of this book in our Equerry Bookstore and follow details for ordering.
A: You are on the right track; fescue is one tough grass but has the nasty side effect of endophyte fungus. Some native prairie grasses may work for you. Bluestem and buffalo grass grow well in the Midwest, but I am not aware of research involving horse performance after grazing these varieties. I suggest you check with your local County Cooperative Extension Service and see what they recommend. They know your growing conditions and availability of different forages. You will also gain access to the latest research data for your area.
Q: My horse recently colicked and had diarrhea from something he ate in the field. He is generally picky and the other three horses didn't get sick. What weeds in Virginia might cause a horse to colic and will mowing help?
A: Many different factors can produce colic in a horse so please have your vet check all your animals to help identify all possible causes. You ask about weeds that might cause a horse to colic but I prefer to zero in on changes that may have resulted in colic. Spring pasture is typically lush, high in sugars and low in fiber. It can act like grain in your horse's gut because the sugar is plentiful, available and easily fermented. Starch and sugar fermenting bacteria that live in the gut go "crazy" with excess food; they produce a lot of certain acids and some toxins that can result in a very sick horse. The common cause of sick horses on spring pasture is that they experienced a sudden change; too much easily fermentable feed too soon. Slowly acclimate your horses to spring pasture. Let them graze for short periods of time and build up to your final schedule over a two week period (MINIMUM of two weeks. It takes time for the gut to adjust to feed changes). Feed them grass hay prior to turning out.
Check your pasture to see if you have unusual plants growing. You want to see a nice blend of grasses and legumes (clovers are most common though you may find alfalfa, vetch, trefoil, etc.). Watch your horses graze and see what they prefer, note what they avoid. Ag. Service stores and the Extension service can help you identify the plants.
Mowing is always a good part of pasture management. Here is an excellent thumb rule for grazing/mowing a pasture: Start grazing when pasture plants are 6 - 8 inches tall. Stop grazing when plants are down to 1.5 inches tall OR the animals have been on that pasture for 7 days. After 7 days the grazed plants start to regrow and can not tolerate the stress of being clipped back again (re-grazed). The horses love this new growth and will search it out that is why you should pull them off the pasture and allow it to grow back to 6-8 inches tall. Break your pasture into several paddocks to allow this management. If the plant growth gets ahead of you (and it will with spring rain), mow them and follow the same guidelines.
Also, mow your pastures if you find uneven grazing. Clumps of weeds will go to seed because horses avoid them, this gives them an advantage and they'll soon choke out good pasture plants. Mowing is a judgment call depending on rainfall, number of horses grazing per acre and more. Common sense is your best guide.
A: Clover in your pasture presents the greatest hazard to horses when they aren't used to it and eat too much too soon (see above Q & A). Another concern you should note is that clover can get moldy if you mow it and hope it dries for hay. The large leaves can trap moisture and encourage mold growth. One deadly example of this is "Sweet Clover poisoning". Sweet clover is a tall plant that looks a great deal like Alfalfa and has yellow colored flowers. It contains a compound called "Coumarin". If the sweet clover is mowed for hay and gets moldy, the Coumarin changes to Dicumarol and this compound can be deadly. Dicumarol ties up Vitamin K. Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting so horses with large amounts of Dicumarol in their system can bleed to death. This is the active ingredient in many rat poisons so you can see, it is highly effective and very dangerous. Sweet clover by itself is fine, the mold converts it to a dangerous feed.
Q: I'm landscaping around my equestrian facility and have searched the Horse Owner's Field Guide to Toxic Plants but don't find any of the nursery's recommended plants listed as toxic. How can I be sure that I'm not planting something that will be a problem if a horse escapes his stall or pasture and ends up in the "cultivated" space? What about sheep fescue? Potentilla? Savin Juniper?
A: Check with your veterinarian. Be sure your vet checks these specific plants in detail. If the vet can't help you, contact your land grant university. The toxicology department/poison control center and University Vet School should be able to give a detailed response to your question. I've always felt two rules apply with poisonous plants and horses: 1) Most ornamental plants are harmful to horses. 2) Well fed horses usually avoid poisonous plants. Yes, there are exceptions to these rules - especially the one about horses eating only what they should! But as a simple guide, this usually works.
A: Michigan is a very large and diverse state and you want answers that are specific to your area. Check with your county Cooperative Extension Service (CE). They should give the information you need. Michigan State University is another excellent source for information; they are also the headquarters for the state CES and Vet School.
A: As a standard precaution, please check with your local experts such as the County Cooperative Extension Service, Land Grand University, Master Gardeners or Agricultural specialty stores in addition to your veterinarian. Many plants are affected by local conditions and I can't guarantee a complete list of trees that would be safe. Instead of listing what is 'NOT POISONOUS" as you requested, here is a list of common ornamental trees that MAY BE poisonous. I tried to include the dangerous parts of the plant and conditions when they may be a problem.
Poisonous trees include:
Yew (Japanese and English Yew):
trees/bushes: in the bark, leaves and seeds
Q: I am about to become a first time horse owner and have around seven and one half acres. The primary home for the horses will be the pasture until a barn is erected. My question is: Where do I put the manure? Can it just be fenced in the back corner of my land or must it be dumped somewhere? I'm not sure I understand completely the do's and don'ts of keeping a horse at pasture.
A: Manure that can be easily collected from a stall should be piled up away from horses so it can compost and break down. Manure that is naturally dropped by horses as they walk around a pasture is not easily collected. If your horses do not have a barn or a central place where you can easily gather manure, look at pasture management which includes rotation to allow time and conditions to break down the manure where it lays.
Ideally you would want to divide your pasture into smaller paddocks so horses graze and "poop" on one part of the pasture while the other areas rest. Seven 1-acre paddocks? This may not be possible. At the very least, try to split your 7 acres in half. When you put your horses on the "new" pasture, mow and possibly drag the old pasture so the manure clumps are broken open and exposed to sunshine, rain and fresh air. Parasites in the manure may hatch and die without entering your horse.
Manure management is designed for keeping parasite numbers as low as possible. Also, horses won't graze an area with manure. Weeds may thrive if the area doesn't get grazed and you will have hungry horses in a weedy pasture. Rotating pastures helps your pasture and your horses thrive.
Be sure your horses always have fresh water, whatever paddock they are in. When your barn is built consider an area near the barn where you can pile the manure. It can be a simple pile or a fancy pit that will be unloaded with special equipment. Your location may determine what is necessary. Do mushroom growers come to collect the manure? Talk with them to see what they need to pick up the manure. Do you have a high water table and swampy ground? Pile the manure on dry ground, You don't want the nutrients leaching into the ground water. Does it need to be fenced off? Not necessarily. Fencing would provide security but most children and animals won't want to bother with a manure pile.
If you spread your own compost (piled manure that has broken down) know that it is best if you can aerate the manure pile by forking it over. This is the same technique home gardeners use when composting waste for their garden soil. A pile of manure will get hot and then go dormant. If you can flip it over into a new pile, add a little water if it is dry, then you will help it break down more and be better for your soil. You will have to rotate the pile several times. True compost looks like dirt. You have fully broken down all the original material and can't recognize anything. It also smells like dirt.
A: Less than an acre of land for 2 horses is going to limit your options. In general you have an exercise lot which will probably have poor forage growth and accumulate a large amount of manure. Raking and hauling the manure will help a great deal. When you collect the manure try to pile it so you can manage the composting. Make a pile on dry ground; wet ground will allow the nutrients to leach into the ground water. If possible, fork the manure pile over once a week and create another pile. This will allow fresh air (oxygen) into the manure and speed up the composting process. The manure should be damp so add a little water if it gets too dry. Composting will generate heat and should be 140 degrees F for several days to kill pathogens. Turn the pile several times until it looks like topsoil and doesn't smell like manure. You may want to make several piles so you aren't always adding fresh manure to a nearly finished compost pile. The finished compost is great for gardens or can be safely spread on your pasture.
If collecting the manure from your paddock is extremely difficult, consider dragging the field to break up the manure piles and let the sun dry them down. You still run the risk of parasites so, if possible, keep your horses off the pasture when it is wet.
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