Improving Pasture Quality

Listed below are the decisions required for improving a pasture. Does the pasture need to be renovated, reestablished or can it be left alone? If you renovate, what method will be used?

Improvement Decision - Renovate, Reestablish, or Leave It Alone?

  • Conduct a soil test. Based on the results, fertilize the pasture.
  • Control the weeds
  • Create exercise areas and paddocks
  • Manage the grazing of the pasture by horses
  • Consider the need for reseeding or renovation
  • Don't overstock or overgraze pastures. Use rotational grazing
Mares on pasture
Iowa State University Mares on Pasture

Renovate when:

  • Pasture is in poor condition, and management techniques will not improve it
  • You want to grow a different forage specie or variety
  • Consider including more grasses and/or legumes into the existing sod.
    • Legumes (alfalfa, clovers, birdsfoot trefoil) contribute nitrogen to the pasture
    • Legumes provide better distribution of forage production in the summer months

Renovating grass pasture without legumes

  • Test soil every three years- You can take soil samples once the frost is out and the ground is dry.
  • Control weeds – Spray annual weed plants in the spring. Mowing is a method of yearly weed control, but in areas, with large numbers of weed plants, a herbicide may need to be used.
  • Fertilize if needed 1 to 2 times per year – Based on the soil tests, apply fertilizer. Many pastures only need nitrogen.
  • Maintain the stand

Renovating grass pasture by adding legumes

  • Test soil
  • Control weeds
  • Reduce grass competition
  • Seed the legume
  • Let the legume plant get established
Mare and foals on pasture
Mare and foals on pasture

Types of pasture renovation

No-Till Drill = best way for creating new or over-seeding a current pasture

  • Use no-till pasture drill to seed into existing pasture sod in early spring (March and April)
  • Weeds should be under control
  • Broadcasting = seed cannot contact the ground, should be turned over then packed

Sod-Seed or Interseed

  • Fertility – good enough for legumes?
  • Grass sod should be short
  • Drill seed to a depth of ¼ to ½ in. and cover
  • Graze seeding year to allow the establishment of pasture plants
  • Graze later years to keep new plants!
  • Most legumes work better with improved seed placement
  • Grasses are more likely to be successfully established with interseeding.
  • Late Summer (August!) is a possible alternate interseeding time -- if conditions are suitable

Starting a new pasture on cropland or renovating old pasture

  • Time for establishment (minimal production in seeding year -- pasture doesn't get "well established" for 2-3 years)
  • Keep horses off newly seeded pastures until the grasses become well established
    • Consider forage needs during this time
  • Important steps
    • Smooth, firm seedbed and fine with small clods
    • Plant: late March to April or August to early September
    • For most forage grasses & legumes
      • plant ¼ to ½ inch deep
      • firm soil over the seed (with a roller or press wheels)
  • Mow or clip 3 to 5 times during the seeding year to minimize competition and shade from weeds
  • Maybe 'light' grazing later in the seeding year

Consider the Species

Use a "pasture mix" for horses, not seeds designed for lawns

  • Bluegrass = cool weather, heavy grazing
  • Tall Fescue = warm weather, not as palatable
  • Orchardgrass = responds well to nitrogen, ideal in high grazing areas
  • Reed Canarygrass = wet conditions mature quickly
  • Clover = best in small quantities can cause slobbers

Plan your grazing system

  • Have a sacrifice paddock (or a dry lot) and use it as needed.
  • Each pasture needs rest and regrowth between grazing events.


Photos credit: Peggy Auwerda