Ryegrass Pastures for Horses

Howard Cormier  |  6/16/2010 10:06:07 PM

Johnny Boudreaux

Ryegrass Planting for Horses

By Howard J. Cormier

Southwest Region Equine Agent

LSU AgCenter

Ryegrass provides high quality forage from late November through late May. It is self fed, convenient, and provides excellent nutrition and exercise for horses that do not have to be kept in a stall. However, it can be expensive to fertilize if it is not managed for maximum grazing. (I am a big believer in preparing a seedbed. Most of my comments apply to doing it that way. Throwing seed over an existing pasture will help, but will not give the quality or quantity of ryegrass that planting on a prepared seedbed will.)

First of all, why is ryegrass for horses different than for cattle? It isn’t, except that most cattlemen plant larger acreages, and many times the horse owners do not have the tractors and equipment that full time farmers or cattlemen have to manage their horse operations. On the positive side, because horse operations tend to be smaller, the horse owner can devote more time and attention to detail to do everything needed to get a good stand on a few acres. 

 When is it planted?

Annual ryegrass is planted on a prepared seedbed from Sept. 20-Oct. 15. (For planting into established grass, overseed approx. Oct. 15.) When you plant is important, but ryegrass will not usually come up unless it gets a rain of at least a half inch or more. Even though the ground is dry, throw the seed out. When it rains, the ryegrass will germinate and start growing. Do not wait until it rains to plant, as that can delay you several weeks, and the ryegrass will still not germinate until the next good rain.

How much do you plant?

Try to plant one acre per two horses, and limit grazing to about two hours per day, at least until the weather warms in the spring. Regulate grazing to allow more grazing time when the grass is getting ahead of the horses. You can plant 1 acre per horse, if you have the space. This will require less management in order to save the grass. Separating the pasture into small plots that can be rotated will make a tremendous difference in how much grazing you will get. Horses tend to eat the grass so short that it does not regrow quickly, so rotate when it gets no shorter than four inches or so.

How do you actually prepare the soil?

Prepare the soil by disking to remove the old grass. Tall grass will be hard to manage. After you disk, try to cultipack, harrow, or drag an old gate or corral panel to level the soil and break up clods. Don’t disk deeply—just enough to remove the old grass so the seed makes good soil contact. Deep plowing will cause bogging and trampling. Plan to ditch well so you have no standing water.

How much seed is needed?

Use 30 lbs. of seed per acre on a prepared seedbed (use 20 lbs. when overseeding into a sod).  The variety Prine (not prime) has done well the last few years, and is resistant to rust and blast. Research at the Iberia Research Station supports this variety in south Louisiana due to high yields. Gulf is an industry standard, but has not performed well the last three years to be recommended. There are other high yielding varieties for other areas. (Go to www.lsuagcenter.com/en/communications/publications/Publications + Catalog/Crops + and + Livestock/Pasture for details about your area of the state.)

A hand seeder will work for a couple of acres, or you can use a small electric seeder mounted on the back of a 4- wheeler for bigger pastures. Tractor mounted seeders usually use a PTO driven seeder. Plant half of what is recommended, then crisscross the field in the opposite direction with the remaining half of the seed. This will insure that you do not run out of seed before the job is done. You can cover the seed lightly with a harrow, or simply leave it on top of the ground. Don’t plow it in again, as it will be put too deep to come through the soil cover.

How much fertilizer is needed?

I encourage producers to take a soil test to see what fertilizer you needed. You can bring the soil test results to your Extension Office, and some fertilizer dealers they can make a blend of what you need. You will find that fertilizer is expensive, hence the value of a soil test to know exactly what you need, and not put anything you don’t need. Shop around. In the absence of a soil test, put 200 lbs. per acre of 6-24-24 fertilizer, or 8-24-24, at planting. This will cost about $20-25 per 50 lbs., or $80-100 per acre. This will give you what is needed for germination, root development, and early growth. If you can disk it in, that is better. If not, just spread it on top of the soil. The rain will carry it down. Disking it in after planting the ryegrass might bury the seed too deeply.

(When overseeding, delay fertilization until the warm season grass goes dormant in cool weather. Fertilizing too soon will stimulate the warm season grasses, at the expense of the ryegrass.)

When it rains and the ryegrass seedlings just come up, they will be like hair- very fine. When they get about 3 inches tall, fertilize with 200 lbs. of 33% (ammonium nitrate or blend of nitrogen) per acre. For small plots, 33% nitrogen in 50 lb. bags will cost about $18-20 per 50 lb. bag. Urea also provides nitrogen and costs $15 per 50 lbs., but is sold only in bulk (half ton bags) for larger acreage. A fertilizer spreader cart can be loaned or rented for larger operations. If you have to wait until the ground is firm enough to support a fertilizer cart, just wait. Don’t track the field up while it’s muddy, or you’ll hurt the stand for later. We had $80-100 per acre for the complete fertilizer- 8-24-24, and another $75 -80 per acre for the nitrogen. The cost of seed is about $18 per acre, so we’re close to $200 per acre, without the cost of labor, fuel, tax, and equipment. This is why it’s important to use all the ryegrass you grow.

 It is critical that you fertilize with nitrogen (ammonium nitrate, urea, or a nitrogen blend) as soon as the ryegrass comes up. Ryegrass makes little or no growth at temperatures below 55 degrees. You must fertilize early so the grass can grow while temps are warm. After it gets cold, fertilizer won’t help, until it warms up again. You can apply more nitrogen if it is needed in early spring, but you might be able to get by without it, if conditions are right, and you have a good rotation set up.

 About a month after you fertilize with nitrogen, if you have had enough rain, you should have 6 inch tall ryegrass, ready to graze. That will be about mid- November to Thanksgiving. Graze as soon as you can without hurting the grass. When ryegrass doesn’t pull out of the ground, start limited grazing for an hour a day, then go to two hours a day after the horses are accustomed to it in a week or so. An hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon is better, but time- consuming if you don’t have the freedom of schedule to open and close gates twice a day. Leaving them on too long will result in trampling when they lie down to rest. Take them off of the pasture so they can lie down outside on a dry lot or other pasture. As soon as they get full and start resting, try to remove them.

Plan to divide the pasture into several small plots after you finish fertilizing. Electric fence is ideal for this. Plan to repair the fence a few times if the horses are not accustomed to it. They will learn quickly, and you will get to where you don’t even have to keep the charger on all the time.

In summary, prepare a good seedbed. Plant by late October, preferably before a good rain. Fertilize according to a soil test, or follow recommendations. Fertilize with nitrogen when the grass first comes up. Limit grazing at first, and set up rotational grazing pens to maximize yield.

If you follow these instructions, and have luck with adequate rainfall, you will have a good winter forage program for your horses.

Call or email me if you have any questions. hcormier@agcenter.lsu.edu. Phone-Office: 337-788-7596. Cell: 337-296-6819.

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