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Pasture Walk and Talk

Published: 10/13/2012
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By Maddy Butcher Gray

Many of us take the ol’ pasture for granted. We gaze lovingly at our horses and don’t give much thought to what’s underneath their feet. But educated pasture management can keep your horses and your field in better shape.

Read about our Maine soil and field testing here.

It's no surprise that Iowa fields are quite different than Maine fields. The contrasts were highlighted even more by the drought that affected Iowa so intensely this summer.
Vacationland? Not so much.
Maine experts stress the need to monitor soil pH and add lime and fertilizer to make fields less acidic and therefore less weed-friendly. But acidic soil is not a big issue in Iowa. In fact, with their deep, rich, flood-plains dirt, folks rarely get their soil tested for pH.

I took a walk with Denise Schwab, Iowa State University Extension specialist, on our eight acres. We have a lot of bluegrass, the base horse pasture grass here. It tends to be productive in the spring and fall, but cannot tolerate heat and dry. (That explains why our field looked so dead for two months!)
We have lots of orchard grass, too. Cows like it. Horses eat the seed heads and tend to turn their noses up at the rest of the plant.
[Photo at right shows the horses eating every millimeter of bluegrass while leaving the orchard grass in the foreground.]
We have tall fescue. It grows well in hot, dry weather but is not real palatable, explained Schwab. It can be a real problem with pregnant mares, presenting placenta and milking problems.
We examined the bromegrass, sedges, and timothy - – all productive plants. (Productive is an agricultural term applied more readily to beef cattle. A “productive” grass will put more healthy weight on beef cattle, thus resulting in a higher yield for the farmer. When we apply it to horses, it means that the grass will feed them more healthily and efficiently than other, less productive plants.

Instead of liming and fertilizing, Schwab likes to recommend seeding with alfalfa and other legumes. Those legumes produce nitrogen which, in turn, will help the nitrogen-hungry grasses around them. Late summer and early fall is when one should overseed fields with clover, orchard grass, brome, and timothy. The denser the grass stand, the fewer weeds.

Speaking of weeds, I had plenty.

There were thickets of uneaten nastiness dotting my pasture. Milkweed, curly dock, bull thistle, wild carrots, mare’s tail, multiflora rose bushes. Ee-gads.
[Photo at right: horses won't eat curly dock, but it makes great foundations for birds' nests.]

You can mow them down, dig them up, or try to conquer them with Round Up or similar herbicide. Either way, you’re likely to spend a decent amount of time and effort if you want to eradicate weeds from your field. That’s especially true if your field, like mine, is stressed and overgrazed. The horses will chomp everything down to the ground, leaving these buggers less competition and more opportunity to grow and flourish.
As Maine’s experts recommended too, rotational grazing will help. Closing off pasture sections will allow the grasses to rest, recuperate, and compete against the weeds.

Schwab recommended Horse Owner's Field Guide to Toxic Plants (see below) as well as Purdue's excellent Field Guide to Forage. Click for PU store link

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10/14/2012 Donna Coffin
The UMaine Extension Equine website includes links to a Maine pasture home-study online course and links to Cornell's Plants Poisonous to Livestock website.

"An owner of a Tennessee Walking Horse once said that his horse reminded him of a lightning rod, for, as he rode, all the sorrows of his heart flowed down through the splendid muscles of his horse and were grounded in the earth." - Marguerite Henry