Oh the joys of spring, birds migrating back, grasses starting to green up, blowing winds, extreme weather changes, and yes, mud!
Very few of us can escape the wrath of soil mixed with excessive amounts of water, otherwise know as mud. For livestock owners, this is a critical time of year when we must manage our land the best we can.
Being a horse owner myself, I know the challenges many horse owners have when it comes to “doing the right thing.” It’s not that anyone deliberately manages his land improperly. Maybe they don’t know any better, maybe they don’t have the finances or maybe they don’t have the resources.
So, for those who don’t know any better, here are some best management practices, commonly referred to as BMPs, that can help horse owners keep their pastures and fields in the best condition possible.
Don’t turn ’em out
First of all, this time of year, horses should NOT be turned out in the pasture. Yes, this sounds crazy to horse owners.
If you don’t want to keep them off, or if you have to turn your horses outside, you should establish a “sacrifice area” turn-out. Best case scenario would be an all-weather paddock, created by removing the topsoil, lining it with a geo-textile fabric, and then top dressing it with gravel or crushed limestone.
The paddock should be cleaned of manure occasionally, so it doesn’t eventually turn into a manure/mud lot.
Whatever sacrifice area you choose to let your horses out in, remember those four legged, 1,000+-pound eating machines will easily tear up any sod or grass you might have in the pasture. You many have to feed hay in the sacrifice area while the soil is soft.
The sacrifice area will probably have mud, and manure run-off should definitely have some type of vegetative buffer (grass) around it so the potential for polluted run-off is minimized.
So, when can you turn your horses out? Only you will know — walk the pasture — make sure it is firm, not soft and wet, and that the grass has gotten a good growth or start before those munching mouths attack it. Typically the time of year is going to be late April — early May. It all depends on our wonderful Ohio weather.
If you resist the temptation to turn out now, the forages and condition of your pasture will be worth it in a few months.
Secondly, if you need or want to seed or renovate your pasture, now is the time to do that. The easiest way is to do a frost seeding.
Frost seeding is simply broadcasting legume or grass seed on existing grass pastures in late winter or very early spring when the ground is still frozen. Freezing and thawing, plus early spring rains, provide the only seed coverage.
Broadcasting seed in mid- to late winter gives time for freeze-thaw cycles to shallowly incorporate the seed.
It’s actually good if your horses grazed in the fall and winter before seeding because that would cut forage growth and also open the sod, allowing better soil-to-seed contact.
Keeping plant growth down is important because broadcasted seeds can become lodged or stuck in tall forages and never reach the soil. Grazing the prior year’s growth also reduces competition between established plants and new ones that require plenty of sun.
If you don’t frost seed, then you need to work over the soil, whether it’s with a disc and cultipacker, or a harrow, or no-till drill, just as long as the seed is planted about a quarter of an inch into the soil.
Prior to any seeding, you would have hopefully taken a soil sample and treated your soil, because forages need fertilizer and proper pH to grow! If you soil test, do what the soil lab recommends, and if you haven’t soil tested, you can just go with a triple 19 or triple 12 type fertilizers. The best time to fertilize your pastures is early spring when the grass starts to green up, at least around mid-May.
As before, give your grasses and legumes a starting chance — and keep the hooves and nipping teeth of horses off for a while.