Choosing Forages for Horse Pastures

Learn about forage types and how to select the right one for your horse’s pasture.

Healthy pastures filled with dense, nutritive grasses can be excellent forage sources for horses. In fact, some horses can meet all their nutrient needs on good-quality pasture alone. The key to establishing good pasture, however, is planting the appropriate forage types.

During the University of Maryland (UMD) Extension’s healthy horse-keeping webinar series, pasture and forage specialist Amanda Grev, MS, PhD, described different forage types and how to select the best ones for your horse’s pasture.

First, make sure your pastures are well-managed. “No forage species will persist if continually overgrazed or mismanaged,” she said. “Good pasture requires good management, and that will be true no matter what forage species we have in our fields.”

Forage Characteristics

Grev described the broad forage characteristics property owners need to understand when selecting a species.

Cool vs. warm season

As their names imply, cool-season forages do best in cool, wet climates (they grow best between 60-80°F), while warm-season forages thrive in hot, dry climates (75-90°F). Grev explained that cool-season forages grow mostly in the spring and fall and slack off in the summer. Warm-season forages do just the opposite—they grow mostly in summer.

Examples of cool-season forages include Kentucky bluegrass, timothy, orchardgrass, and tall fescue. Warm-season forages include Bermuda grass, bahia grass, big bluestem, and Indian grass.

“One of the things to consider when debating whether a warm-season or cool-season forage is appropriate is what part of the country we’re in,” Grev said. “Cool-season forages predominate the northern half of the United States, with warm-season forages in the southern half. Places like Maryland fall into that transition zone where we can have some warm-season and some cool-season forages.”

Grasses vs. legumes

The main difference between grasses and legumes is their nutrient content. Grev explained that grasses tend to be lower in protein and calcium, a little lower in caloric value, and higher in fiber than legumes. Legumes have a higher feed intake and higher digestible energy than grasses. Plus, livestock tend to prefer them.

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