Managing Horse Pastures in the Sandhills of North Carolina

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Managing pastures is key to owning grazing species such as horses, mules, and donkeys. Timing is vital when making decisions about your pasture, such as knowing when to take soil samples, apply lime and fertilizer, and graze your horses. This can be daunting, but I promise it is easier than it may seem!

The first step in pasture management is sampling your soil. This test will tell you what nutrients your pasture needs to flourish. Taking a sample for the soil test is easy! Having the right tools and ensuring you get a representative sample is key to getting accurate results. Sampling is easiest with a soil probe or a sharped half-inch pipe; however, you can use a garden trowel in a pinch. Sampling begins by taking subsamples, small cores that take the first four inches of soil. Then, place the sub-sample in a plastic bucket; repeat this process 15-20 times per pasture to get a good representation of the pasture. After you have your subsamples in your bucket, mix it up with your hand and place it in the soil sample test box; this becomes your soil sample. Be sure to label each sample according to where it was taken so you know what nutrients each pasture requires. These boxes can be picked up and dropped off at your local N.C. Cooperative Extension office to be sent to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA&CS) for testing. N.C. Cooperative Extension Agents can also come to your farm to help take your sample! The test takes a couple of weeks to come back. The samples cost $4 per box from Thanksgiving to April 1st and are free after April 1st. 

You will be given overwhelming information when the soil sample results are ready. Luckily, there are only four significant things that you have to focus on: pH, Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). The pH levels help to optimize nutrient availability, allowing the essential nutrients to the grasses, legumes, and forbs, which promotes root development and lush foliage. This enables the forages to use the N-P-K that we provide to them fully. The pH scale measures how acidic or basic the soil is; the scale is 1-14, with one being acidic and 14 being basic or alkaline. On the pH scale, seven is neutral, where we want our soils to be for optimal grass growth. Unfortunately, in the Sandhills, due to our sandy soil and abundance of pine trees, which thrive in acidic soils, we typically have very acidic soils with ranges from 4.5-6. Any soil below six is considered acidic and starts to inhibit the grass growth and ability to absorb N-P-K, reducing forage availability. pH is raised by adding something basic or alkaline to it to bring the pH closer to neutral; this is most often lime in pastures. It typically takes one ton of lime per acre in sandy soils to raise the pH one point (Mamo et al., 2009). The best time to put out lime is in the fall or spring, in between the growing seasons of cool and warm grasses, three to six months before grass green-up. 

Nitrogen is the most common soil amendment to add to forages and crops. Nitrogen is the food and protein for the plants to grow tall and lush. Nitrogen is used up by the plant very quickly and will dissipate in the soil if not used. Nitrogen must be put out every growing season, ideally several times during the growing season. For Bermuda grass, the growing season is typically May-August, so I prefer to apply nitrogen every 30-45 days to get the most out of the forage. Phosphorus and Potassium tend to hang out in the soil longer and do not need to be applied during every application once the soil reaches the ideal amount of these nutrients. Phosphorus is responsible for downward root growth and produces the seed heads of the plants. Potassium is like a multimineral for the plant; it promotes overall well-being and allows it to thrive. When reading your soil report before applying fertilizer, it is essential to note that the recommendation is for the whole year, not per application, meaning if you want to put out fertilizer four times a year, you need to divide the recommended amount of fertilizer on the soil report by four. 

Knowing when to plant will help ensure success when overseeding or planting new grasses. Most warm-season grasses, such as Bermuda or Crabgrass, are best planted between the middle of April and the middle of May. Cool-season grasses, such as fescue or ryegrass, are best planted from September to mid-November. 

While much of pasture management is about soil health, it is only part of the story. The other part is grazing management. Grazing has a massive impact on the growth of forages, especially overgrazing. Overgrazing is caused when horses have continuous access to a pasture without the pasture being a place to rest or get a break for a couple of days to several weeks. Grazing below four inches for most grasses causes them to stunt and stop growing. They begin to use their energy reserves to maintain instead of increase, which is especially detrimental to grasses at the end of the growing season or during periods of drought. When overgrazed during these periods of stress, grasses will die and not come back, leaving room for weeds to come and take over the pasture. Moving horses off a specific pasture area to let the grass rest for at least 30 days is the best way to prevent overgrazing. This can be done by having multiple permanent paddocks or setting up temporary electric paddocks. It is also essential to be aware of your stocking density; in the Sandhills, it is recommended to have at least two acres of well-established grass per horse in a continuous grazing situation. 

Are you interested in learning more about pasture management? N.C. Cooperative Extension, Moore County Center will host “Horse Pasture Management in the Sandhills” on April 23rd, 2024. Contact Tom Shea, for more information and details.