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Spring Pasture Renovation


Compiled by Tom Brannon

“Test – Don’t Guess” is the starting point for just about anything that needs repair or improvement, be it mechanical, animal, vegetable, or mineral. “You don’t know where to go or how to get there until you know where you are.” This axiom especially holds true for farm management.  If you want to improve the quality of the forage for your animals, it is a waste of time, money, and resources to just apply some lime and fertilizer without knowing how much is needed and for what purpose.  The rate of application would be different, for example, for converting land into pasture that has been in row crop, as opposed to rejuvenating established pastures. Likewise, just because you have done something a certain way in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the most effective way to do it now.

Fortunately, in the mid-south we have several options to test the soil in our pastures and set up a pasture management plan that is most effective. Depending on where you live in the mid-south, a University Extension Service agent can assist you in getting your soil tested. A list of websites and contact information for mid-south Agricultural Extension Services can be found at the end of this article.

Let’s look at some of the information available. Tailoring land renovation depends on the purpose for which it is used. Dr. Rocky Lemus, Associate Extension/Research Professor, Plant and Soil Sciences at Mississippi State University Extension Service states: “Fertilizing pastures is different from fertilizing hay because most of the nutrients are recycled in a pasture system. Pasture fertilization should be controlled based on the producer’s goals.  A fertility program should address the following questions: • How much forage is needed for the animals? • What time of year is the forage needed most? • What plant species are present? • What are my management strategies? Answering these questions will allow a producer to increase fertilizer efficiency and reduce costs.

“Pasture land should be soil tested every 2 to 3 years.  You should know what soil pH is ideal for the type of forage species present before you apply any nutrients. Soil pH has a major effect on nutrient availability.

“The time of the year and the time during the growing season that fertilizer is applied can affect the amount of growth that occurs. To increase forage production, fertilizer has been traditionally applied in the spring, but spring application may or may not be best for your situation. Consider how much livestock is present and how much forage those animals can eat before forage quality declines. To make the most of your time and money, ask yourself this question: How can fertilizer applications help us use forage more efficiently? Apply fertilizer in the spring only if the soil test recommends it and increased forage production is needed to sustain livestock production.”

The disadvantage to annual fertilizer application, especially nitrogen, is that it is usually only effective in the season or year that it is applied. A longer term solution is to have a mixture of grasses and legumes in the pastures. Legumes, such as Lespedeza and clover, “fix” nitrogen from the air into the soil (air is 78% nitrogen). If allowed to reseed, annual legumes will last a number of growing seasons.

Gary Bates, Professor of Plant Sciences at The University of Tennessee, states: “Rhizobium is a group of bacteria which enter the roots of legumes and form nodules, or knots. The bacteria inside these nodules take nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it into a form that the plant can use. Not only is the nitrogen available to the legume, but the surrounding grass plants can use a portion of this nitrogen. The ability of legumes to “fix” nitrogen is actually the result of this mutualistic relationship (beneficial to both) between the legume and the bacteria. The bacteria get energy from the legume, while the legume gets nitrogen from the bacteria.”  

The disadvantage of high legume content in forage is that increased salivation or slobbering from the horse’s mouth. This slobbering is caused by the same Rhizobium bacteria that allow the legume to fix nitrogen. The slobbering, although annoying, does not really harm the horse as long as the horse drinks  plenty of fresh clean water to prevent mild dehydration.

Stocking Rate and Pasture Rotation. Dr. Bob Coleman, State Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky, says that cattle producers tend to monitor the stocking rates of cattle closely, but that horse owners tend to not think much about this aspect of their pasture. To monitor stocking rates, farmers need to look at how much acreage they have, how much grass their pastures can grow, and how many animals the acres can support.

Dr. Coleman said that a horse owner may have 10 acres and 5 horses, and believe that amount of ground would be adequate. But the majority of extension publications recommend 2 to 4 acres of grazing area per horse. Coleman also recommends farm owners take into account whether the pasture has a lot of weeds, how the pasture is managed, and the climate.

Many owners can do a better job of managing their grazing areas by utilizing rotational grazing, where horses graze one area, and then are moved onto an area that had been left ungrazed. Another under-utilized tool is heavily stocking the horses on a smaller section of pasture until they have grazed the majority of the valuable forage (not just their favorite plants), then moving them onto another section of pasture.

Both of these methods enhance forage production, Coleman says, by utilizing more-intensive grazing in specific areas while resting other areas of the pasture.

Horses like to eat many kinds of grasses and plants – not just for the taste, but also because different forages have different required nutrients for horses. A good mix of a variety of grasses and legumes in the right percentages make for the ideal pasture for your horses.   

Bates, Gary. “Renovation: Plant Clovers in Grass Pastures.”
Bates, Gary. “Tall Fescue, Orchardgrass, and Timothy: Cool Season Perennial Grasses.”
Lemus, Dr. Rocky. “Strategies for Better Management of Pasture Fertilization.” Mississippi State University Extension.
Thomas, Heather Smith. “Improving Horse Pastures: Pay Attention to Stocking Rate.” Stable Management.
 Soil, Plant & Pest Center, 5201 Marchant Drive, Nashville, TN 37211-5112
Phone: (615) 832-5850; Email:    
Mississippi State Extension Service:     
University of Kentucky Soil Testing Lab,103 Regulatory Services Bldg., Lexington, KY 40506-0275
Email: Frank Sikora at; Phone: 859-257-2785
Arkansas Experiment Station,2301 S. University Avenue, Little Rock, AR 72204
Phone: 501-671-2000
University of Tennessee Extension Service,

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