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Once I learned how to prepare my pastures for horses, and how to prepare to move my horses from a dry lot to a paddock, the next question was what do I need to do to keep my pastures healthy? Here are some tips on how to seed a pasture.
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If you’re looking for a quick fix for a few bare patches in your pasture, we may have some bad news for you. Unfortunately, spots of pasture that have been overgrazed or unkept can take many seasons to return to normal. To help you work toward a better pasture, we’ve put together a loose timeline for optimal seeding.
Decide if you want to seed a pasture in early spring or late summer. About 6 to 12 months before you actually seed your pasture, test your soil. You’ll need to know if your soil is acidic so you can start treating it accordingly. If your soil is found to be very acidic, you will need to use lime to neutralize it.
This neutralizing process can take several months or even years if you are applying lime to the topsoil. Finely ground limestone is recommended over coarsely ground because it will react faster. The main goal with liming is to neutralize the acidity in your soil so that plant roots can get the nutrients they need. Apply lime at least a year before you seed your pasture if the pH levels of your soil are really low.
Between 3 to 6 months before you plan to seed your pasture, you need to decide if you can overseed or if you need to start over completely. A good rule of thumb is to overseed when your pasture contains 50-70% of acceptable forage. Kill off all vegetation and start over if you have 50% or less of desirable vegetation in your pasture.
If you need help determining what percentage of quality vegetation you have in your pasture, try using the Equine Pasture Evaluation Disc. With this method, you can mark a spot on a frisbee or plastic disc with an arrow. Toss this disc randomly into your pasture about 20 times, making note of whether there is good vegetation or not where the arrow points. Base your percentages off of your results from tossing the disc.
If you are overseeding, you’ll want to mow the pasture or overgraze about a week before seeding. This will minimize the amount of plants that can compete with your seedlings for sunlight.
When re-establishing a pasture you have a couple options for preparing your pasture for seeding. You could use a non-selective herbicide to kill off existing vegetation. This option leaves a layer of plant matter that can protect your new seedlings and keep moisture in by acting as a mulch. You can also till the soil to bury the current plants before seeding. When tilling, you may need to disc and roll the soil for the optimal fine but firm seedbed.
The late summer is the best time to plant cool-season grasses because this gives the seed time to develop in cooler weather. For cooler regions, aim for early August. Warmer regions can plan for late August and early September. You can also plant in early spring when temperatures are still cool. To make sure seedlings are able to establish before it gets hot and growth slows down, seed in mid-April to mid-May in cooler regions. Warmer regions should start to seed earlier around mid-March to mid-April.
To seed, you can either broadcast seed or use a planter or drill. The main concern is that there is seed to soil contact, meaning the seed should be buried ⅛ to ¼ inches deep. This makes broadcasting more of a challenge because you will have to drag the seedbed after broadcasting to pull soil over the seed. Then, you would need to roll it again to make sure the soil is packed down.
Another option is renting a no-till drill. This drill cuts small slits in the soil, drops a seed in, and presses the slit closed. Make sure your drill is made for small seeds like grass instead of grains. You also want to make sure that the tractor and drill will be narrow enough to fit through gates on your farm.
Before allowing your horses to graze, you need to rest your pasture. Resting your pasture for 6 or more months will allow the seedlings to grow and establish deep and strong roots before horses begin grazing. You don’t want your horses to rip out the plant’s roots or eat too many leaves for the plant to regrow after all of your careful planning.
The longer you let the pasture rest, the more resilient it will be when horses start grazing. Mowing, however, can be helpful for encouraging the pasture to thicken up while plants are still getting established.
Once your pasture is ready for grazing, you need to manage it to keep it usable as long as possible. Even the best pastures will decline over a few years and may need occasional overseeding. For more tips on this, check out our articles on pasture management and grazing.
Overseeding is a great option for ensuring the quality and ground cover of forage in your pasture without taking on any major projects. Plus, you can overseed small patches that are problem areas or a whole pasture.
The fall is generally the best time for overseeding. Late September is best for southern areas and late August or early September is best for northern regions. The cooler temperatures are the best conditions for cool-season grasses and weed competition is generally low at this time. You can also reach out to an agriculture extension office in your local area that can advise you on the best type of grass for your pasture and the best time to plant it.
One challenge of overseeding is keeping horses out of the area until the grass has had enough time to become established. To offset these challenges, you could consider creating a sacrifice area to hold horses while your overseeded pastures rest for 6 to 8 months.
Many people overseed and rest a portion of their pastures one year, and overseed the other portions the next year. If that is not a possibility for you, consider seeing every year, and rest the pasture for a few months or as long as you can before allowing grazing. For tips on transitioning your horse back to grazing, check out this article.
It’s important to control weeds when overseeding your pasture so seedlings do not have to compete with these invasive species. But, you need to use herbicides with caution, as they could negatively affect your young seedlings. Mowing or grazing pastures right before seeding can also help control weed growth.
The best defense to weeds is a healthy, thick stand of grass. However, you may need to treat your pasture with herbicides that attack weeds like dandelions, plantain and thistle. These weeds are highly palatable to horses, but can contain far more sugar than normal grasses. A sudden, high volume intake of sugar can cause serious problems such as laminitis, also known as founder.
One common weed that is particularly dangerous to pastures and the horses in them is johnsongrass. This weed is tolerant to drought and can easily take over pastures when other plants are drying up and dying out. But, if horses graze fields full of johnsongrass weeds, they can suffer from johnsongrass poisoning and symptoms such as neuropathy and teratogenesis. Find more on johnsongrass and its effects here.
To reduce the chances of johnsongrass taking over your pasture, make use of a few different prevention practices. For starters, use a weed-free seed for seeding or overseeding your pasture. Avoid driving machines through patches of johnsongrass stands and clean equipment that has come into contact with the noxious weed. This will prevent its seeds from spreading to your pasture.
If johnsongrass does appear in your pasture, you may need to overgraze you pasture or mow constantly. This method is most effective when johnsongrass plants are young (1-4 weeks) so that they lack the energy to regrow after being cut or grazed down. Fall plowing can also be effective for pulling up johnsongrass roots and rhizomes. This method is most effective in combination with herbicides that can make sure rhizomes do not regrow after being cut up and dispersed after plowing.
Whether you just want to fill in bare patches in your pasture, or you are having to completely re-establish your pasture, it’s important to know how to seed a pasture. Be sure to follow our timeline to ensure successful reseeding or overseeding. Be diligent in your pasture management after seeding, too. This will ensure the longevity of your work and keep weeds and other harmful plants at bay.
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