Best Management Practices for Equine Farms

Learn about the implementation, challenges, and results of adopting Best Management Practices (BMPs) on the equine farms of our ESS partners.
Best Management Practices for Equine Farms - Articles

Updated: October 4, 2017

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Best Management Practices for Equine Farms

Horse farms BMPS

Our Equine Environmental Stewardship Program partners worked with Penn State Extension to select and implement one or more Best Management Practices (BMPs) on their farm. BMPs were chosen to increase pasture canopy cover and improve pasture quality by increasing perennial grasses and desirable forages. Farms that decided to reseed pastures were provided with a custom-blended seed mix based on soil conditions, farm management, pasture needs, and level of use.

The following farms are committed to adopting practices that maintain healthy horses, healthy farms, and a healthy environment. Learn about their implementation of Best Management Practices, the challenges they faced, and how they made it work.

Stonewall Stable's Best Management Practices

The operation is home to about 10-14 horses which have access to 19 acres of pasture. The farm has rolling fields, beautiful split rail fencing and a large indoor and outdoor riding arena.

Best Management Practice (BMP) Identified

Improve year round pasture canopy cover and increase the vegetation that provides nutrition for the horses.

Reason for BMP

The pastures at Stonewall Stables maintained a summer canopy cover that was acceptable to prevent erosion and absorb manure nutrients. However, a large part of the canopy consisted of plants that had no nutritional value and annual grasses such as crabgrass and foxtail that die when the growing season ends. Many of the pastures have moderate to steep slopes, posing a threat of erosion and nutrient loss in winter when vegetation is absent. Perennial grasses and clover would reduce the risk of erosion and provide better nutrition for the horses.

Course of Action

  • Date Reseeded: Early September
  • Equipment: Tractor and No-Till Drill: A no-till drill is a piece of equipment, pulled by a tractor, that cuts a slit in the soil, places a seed in the slit and covers the seed with a shallow layer of soil. The existing vegetation is not disturbed, reducing the risk of soil erosion.
  • Seed Mix: Perennial Rye, Tekapo Orchardgrass, Forage Fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass, White Clover
  • Soil Tested: Yes
  • Fertilizer: None recommended
  • Lime: None recommended
  • Other: Horses were restricted from grazing in the renovated pasture until the following spring when grasses were fully established.

Results

Before Renovating PastureAfter Renovating Pasture
Canopy Cover80%100%
Desirable Forage50%94%
Perennial Plant70%98%

Before renovation, the canopy cover of the pasture was 80%, which is acceptable to reduce erosion. However, only 50% of the canopy cover contained desirable forage grasses or legumes. The remaining 30% consisted of weeds.

After reseeding the pasture, conditions improved significantly. The stand established quickly in fall and provided thick, dense vegetation in spring that required frequent mowing. The vegetated cover increased from 80% to 100% with 98% of the cover consisting of perennial plants that can provide erosion protection in winter and early spring. The concentration of forage that supplies nutrition for the horses increased form 50% to 94%. The stand of tall, healthy grasses and clover competed with the weed seedlings, reducing the weed population from 30% to 6%.

Challenges

Stonewall Stables housed too many horses to allow for adequate forage growth in pastures, so Craig made a management decision to reduce the number of horses on the farm.

Craig did not own equipment to reseed the pasture so he contacted a neighboring dairy farmer for help. The farmer reseeded the pasture using his tractor and no-till drill.

The no-till drill was too wide to fit through gates, so fence posts were removed to allow pasture access.

Weeds often compete with new seedlings and herbicides are frequently used to reduce weed pressure before reseeding a pasture. Most of the weeds in the pasture were summer annual weeds, which die over winter and grow from seeds the following spring. Pastures on the farm had steep slopes, and since the weeds helped to prevent soil erosion, the decision was made to allow the weeds to remain to hold the soil until the grass was established.

On-Going Management and Additional Best Management Practices (BMPs)

  • Rest and rotate pastures
  • Control grazing hours
  • Mow at recommend heights
  • Soil test every 3 years, applies lime and fertilizer based on recommendations

Ryerss Farm - Best Management Practices

Ryerss is home to 70 horses, which graze 160 acres of pasture. The farm also maintains an additional 160 acres for hay and field crops. Lisa was introduced to the on-farm Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Project by attending a Penn State Environmental Stewardship short course.

Best Management Practice (BMP) Identified

Increase vegetation in winter pastures to provide nutrition for horses, reduce bare spots that contribute to erosion, and suppress weed populations.

Reason for BMP

During the winter months, all horses at Ryerss are removed from pastures, and turned our to a designated winter pasture. This management practice saves pasture grasses from being destroyed and turning to mud. Additionally, moving horses to one, closer pasture in the winter is easier and safer on the handlers and older horses. Horses are returned to grazing pastures as the growing season begins. Most forages from the winter pasture have been eliminated, and the potential risk of sediment and nutrient loss increases. As the temperatures increase, summer annual weeds and grasses begin to fill in bare spots through out the winter pasture. Due to the close proximity of the barn, reseeding the area with more permanent vegetation would be more aesthetically pleasing and reduce the threat of sediment and nutrient loss. Lisa is currently working with the Extension Equine Team to evaluate seed varieties and mixes that will establish quickly and remain viable under heavy grazing conditions.

Course of Action

  • Date Reseeded: Spring
  • Equipment Used: No-Till Drill
  • Seed Mix: Perennial Rye Grass, Ladino Clover, Tekapo Orchard Grass, Kentucky Bluegrass
  • Soil Tested: Yes (above optimum in P & K)
  • Fertilizer: No (none recommended)
  • Lime: No (2000 lbs per acre recommended)
  • Other: Horses are kept off pasture until fall, when they are no longer turned out to graze.

Results

2012 Seed Mixture:
Orchardgrass, etc.
Planned 2013 Seed Mixture:
Tall Fescue, Turf type Bluegrass,
Perennial Ryegrass
Canopy Cover92%
Desirable Forage24%
Perennial Plant56%

After reseeding the winter pasture in the spring, the vegetative cover increased significantly. However, spring planting poses a challenge with weed control. Young grass seedlings often compete with quick growing annual weeds, which explains why a large percent of the reseeded pasture's canopy cover consisted of annual weeds. Fall is a preferred time for reseeding pastures. Little competition from summer annual weeds and fall rain give grass seedlings an opportunity to establish themselves and suppress emerging spring weeds. However, since the winter pasture needs to be used in the fall, spring planting is the only option. In order to determine the success of the spring seeding, the winter pasture was evaluated in the summer. 24% of the plants were desirable forages such as bluegrass and orchardgrass, with the majority of the pasture consisting of weeds. Only 56% of the pasture consisted of perennial plants, while the remaining 36% consisted of annuals. Summer annuals are false indicators of year round vegetation since their life cycle dies at the end of the season, leaving exposed soil, susceptible to erosion.

Challenges

Find varieties that establish quickly, compete with the summer annual weeds, and are resistant to grazing pressure.

On-going Management and Additional Best Management Practices (BMPs):

Lisa plans on continuing to manage pastures by:

  • Applying an herbicide, when necessary, to control weed populations.
  • Reseeding winter pasture in spring using a mixture of Perennial Ryegrass for rapid germination, Turf-Type Kentucky Bluegrass (to handle heavy hoof traffic), and Kentucky-31, Tall Fescue for heavy grazing tolerance.
  • Maximizing vegetative cover.
  • Practicing rotational grazing on summer pastures, allowing pastures to rest by moving horses weekly and sometimes daily.
  • Keeping horses fenced out of streams, except for crossing areas, where banks are stabilized to prevent erosion.

L & B Farm - Best Management Practices

The operation is located on approximately 30 acres of pasture and is home to 40 horses. Lisa became interested and involved in the on-farm Equine Stewardship Project through attending Penn State's Equine Environmental Stewardship Short Course.

Best Management Practice (BMP) Identified

Increase vegetation that provides nutrition for horses, and reduce weed populations in pastures.

Reason for BMP

Most pastures on the farm had sufficient vegetative cover to prevent soil and nutrient loss during the growing season. The majority of the canopy cover, however, consisted of annual weeds and grasses such as foxtail and crabgrass. Annual grasses and weeds are killed by a hard frost in fall which increases the chance of erosion in fall, winter, and early spring. A dense cover of perennial plants can reduce soil and nutrient losses from pastures throughout the year. Pastures that contain perennial grasses and legumes can provide high quality nutrition and help reduce hay and feed costs.

Course of Action

  • Date Reseeded: October 2011; reseeded again September 3, 2012
  • Equipment Used: Prior to seeding, a disk and cultipacker were used to loosen soil and prepare s firm seed-bed. A no-till drill was used to place seed into the ground.
  • Seed Mix: Endophyte free tall fescue, tekapo orchardgrass, festulolium, Kentucky Bluegrass, white clover
  • Soil Tested: Yes
  • Fertilizer: 50 lbs. of nitrogen was applied in April 2012
  • Lime: No (None Recommended)
  • Other: Pastures were seeded using a no-till drill in October 2011. Since most of the annual weeds were killed by a hard frost, no herbicides were used in 2011 to control weeds. New grasses should emerge in fall and have sufficient growth to compete with annual weeds emerging from seed the following spring. It was noted that continuous weed pressure from perennial plants may necessitate applying an herbicide the following year.

Results

2011 SeedingBefore Renovating PastureAfter Renovating Pasture
Canopy Cover80%82%
Desirable Forage24%22%
Perennial Plant38%54%

The reseeded pasture was reevaluated in August of 2012. The pasture showed very little improvement in desirable plants and permanent vegetation after the pasture was seeded. The canopy cover was 80% prior to seeding in October 2011 and was 82% in August 2012. Only 38% of the vegetation consisted of perennial plants prior to reseeding and improved slightly to 54% after reseeding. There is not enough permanent cover to sufficiently reduce sediment loss in late and winter. There was also no improvement in the density of desirable plants that can provide high quality nutrition for horses. Only 24% of plants had nutritional value prior to reseeding and 22% had forage value in August 2012.

The low reseeding success rate was due to multiple factors: late fall seeding, high weed pressure, and excessive fall rains. Southeastern Pa was drenched with heavy rain form Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee during the fall of 2011. When the pasture was evaluated in summer of 2012, there were no rows of new grass seedlings, indicating that the heavy rains transported the seeds and shallow rooted seedlings from the flooded pastures. ( A pasture that was reseeded using a no-till drill will contain obvious rows of new grass plants.)

The pasture was reseeded again in August 2012. Early planting is desirable and provides more time for new seedlings to establish before winter. However the annual grass populations of crabgrass, foxtail and panicum were very high in the pastures. Prior to reseeding, Round-Up was applied to control and kill weeds and annual grasses that could compete with and suppress the emerging young seedlings. The pasture was then minimally worked to alleviate compaction and seeded with the same seeding mix using a no-till drill.

The pasture was re-evaluated in June 2013.

2012 SeedingBefore Renovating Pasture2013 After Renovating Pasture
Canopy Cover82%94%
Desirable Forage22%89%
Perennial Plant54%100%

The pasture showed significant improvement after being seeded in 2012. Due to the density of forage species, the pasture was mowed and baled in May. The pasture was allowed to regrow and the horses began lightly grazing the pastures in late June. Desirable plants greatly improved, increasing from 22% to 89%. The vegetation consisted of Fetololium (30%), tall fescue (17%), Orchardgrass (15%) forage fescue (13%), white clover (9%) and Kentucky Bluegrass (5%). Tall fescue (K31) was not included in the mix and developed from residual seeds that were in the soil. Canopy cover increased from 82% to 94% with 100% of those plants being perennial plants that can provide beneficial erosion control year round.

Challenges

L & B Farm has a high animal density rate, making it difficult and nearly impossible to graze horses for long periods of time without lowering pasture quality. Over grazing prevents growth of forage species, can eliminate forages form the stand and contributes to higher weed germination. Buttercups and Broad Leaf and Curly Dock are weeds that are a management problem on the farm. In order to maintain pasture quality and vegetation, Lisa installed a sacrifice lot, or heavy use area. The sacrifice lot allows Lisa to turn out horses when pastures need rest from grazing, or pasture conditions are not conducive to forage growth.

On-going Management and Additional Best Management Practices (BMPs)

Continuing to improve pastures through:

  • Reducing grazing hours on pastures
  • Mowing to reduce weed pressure

Wind Crest Farm

John and his wife own three Rocky Mountain Horses which have access to five acres of pasture. John was introduced to the On - Farm Sustainable Research and Education Project (SARE) after completing a Penn State Environmental Stewardship short course.

Best Management Practice (BMP) Identified

Increase desirable, perennial vegetation in pastures to provide nutrition for horses, and decrease weed populations.

Reasoning for BMP

Perennial vegetative cover in the pasture was inadequate, leaving bare spots and opportunities for weed germination. Exposed soil increases the chance of erosion and gully formation, but also creates areas of mud, which can pose animal health problems. Increasing the concentration of desirable forage in pastures reduces hay and feed costs and provides an excellent source of nutrition.

Course of Action

  • Date Reseeded: Early Fall
  • Equipment Used: Aerator, pull behind seed spinner, and arena drag
  • Seed Mix: Tekapo Orchard Grass, Perennial Rye, Tall Fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass, White Clover
  • Soil Tested: Yes
  • Fertilizer: 200 pounds of 20 - 10 - 10
  • Lime: 1 ton
  • Procedure: Two weeks prior to reseeding, the pasture was aerated using a pull behind spike aerator. A spinner spreader was used to broadcast seed and an arena drag was used to pull soil over the seeds.

Results

Before Renovating PastureAfter Renovating Pasture
Canopy Cover65%100%
Desirable Forage30%90%
Perennial Plant35%95%

Prior to reseeding, 65% of the pasture was covered with plant canopy canopy and 35% was bare ground. To reduce erosion a minimum of 80% of the pasture should be covered with a plant canopy. Only 30% of the pasture was covered with plants that provided nutrition for the horses; 35% of the pasture was covered with perennial vegetation with 65% being annual plants such as crabgrass and ragweed. After reseeding, the pasture quality and vegetative cover improved significantly. The canopy cover improved to 100%, with no bare spots. Desirable forage tripled, increasing from 30% to 90% in the pasture after being reseeded. Weed populations in the pasture reduced to 10% after reseeding.

Challenges

On - Going Management and Additional BMPs

John plans to continue improving his pastures through:

  • Rotating horses to a new pasture after one week of grazing
  • Mowing pastures frequently
  • Utilizing a sacrifice lot when weather conditions are unfit for turnout

Heritage Hills Equestrian Center

The operation is home to about 45 horses with 16 acres of pasture. Heritage Hills became involved with the Equine Stewardship On-Farm Project by attending a Penn State Environmental Stewardship short course.

Best Management Practice (BMP) Identified

Reduce bare ground and increase vegetation in pastures that can provide nutrition for horses.

Reason for BMP

Heritage Hills maintains approximately 45 horses on 16 acres of pasture. Such a high animal density can result in overgrazed pastures that provide little nutritional value. Bare ground is evident and perennial weeds may make up the majority of the pasture's vegetation. Soil exposed to weather conditions is more likely to suffer from erosion and nutrient loss. Eroding sediments and nutrients negatively impact and degrade water systems.

Heritage Hills is committed to maintaining productive pastures on the farm. The owners plan to utilize sacrifice areas to house the horses in spring and when conditions are not conducive to pasture forage growth. However, several of the pastures lacked significant forage or vegetative cover and were in need of reseeding and renovation.

Course of Action

  • Date of Reseeded: Mid Spring
  • Equipment Used: A spike harrow with logs attached for added weight, was used to loosen soil. Seed was broadcasted using a seed spinner. A chain link harrow was used to pull soil over the seeds to achieve seed to soil contact.
  • Seed Mix: 25 pounds of a commercially available pasture mix
  • Soil Tested: Yes
  • Fertilizer: 75 pounds of 20-10-10
  • Lime: None
  • Other: Three months after the initial reseeding, grasses were six inches tall and horses were re-introduced to the pasture.

Results

Before Renovating PastureAfter Renovating Pasture
Canopy Cover25%100%
Desirable Forage10%78%
Perennial Plant23%96%

Prior to renovating, the pasture had only 25% vegetative growth, and the remaining 75% was bare ground. Only 10% of the pasture contained desirable forage. After renovating, there was a significant increase in vegetative growth. Canopy cover increased from 25% to 100% vegetation. Desirable forage increased from 10% to 78% after renovation.

Challenges

Heritage Hills has a high animal density, making it difficult to keep pastures lush and green. Removing horses from pasture and reducing grazing hours is not easy, however it is a necessary management decision to allow grasses to rest and regrow. Heritage Hills did not have access to a no-till drill or other planting equipment, but the farm successfully established pastures using equipment available on the farm.

Ongoing Management and BMPs

Heritage Hills continues to renovate and reseed pastures that lack adequate canopy cover. In order to maintain and continue improving pasture conditions, the farm utilizes the following best management practices:

  • Regular mowing, to prevent weeds from going to see head and spreading.
  • Applying herbicides to kill already established weeds.
  • Use of sacrifice areas to rest pastures.

Mar Gar Farm

Martha became interested and involved in the Equine Stewardship On-Farm Project after attending Penn State's Equine Environmental Stewardship Short Course.

Best Management Practice (BMP) Identified

Increase desirable forage to meet horses' nutritional requirements, while minimizing weed populations and bare ground.

BMP Reasoning

Pastures were void of sufficient vegetative cover, and lacked perennial plants to protect and cover soil year round. Introducing permanent vegetation would benefit horses' health and prevent sediment and nutrient runoff, which negatively affect water quality.

Course of action

  • Date Reseeded:
  • Equipment Used:
  • Seed Mix:
  • Soil Tested: Yes
  • Fertilizer: (Recommend 125 lb N -80 lb P-40 lb K)
  • Lime: (Recommend 3000 lb per acre)
  • Other:

Results

Before Renovating Pasture
After Renovating Pasture
Canopy Cover40%85%
Desirable Forage30%80%
Perennial Plant35%80%

Prior to renovating, 60% of the pasture lacked vegetative growth. The remaining 40% was vegetation consisting of 10% weeds, and 30% desirable grasses. After reseeding, the overall condition of the pasture improved significantly. Vegetation and desirable forage doubled, and weed populations decreased by half. Only 5% of the pasture's vegetation consisted of weeds.

Challenges

On-going Management and Additional BMPs

Continuing to improve pastures through:
  • Practicing rotational grazing
  • Turning horses out to gravel sacrifice area when weather conditions are unfit
  • A bioswale, a vegetated channel, was installed to direct concentrated storm water away and around the sacrifice area and prevent further erosion problems. Clean water is then prevented from flowing directly through the sacrifice area and contaminating areas with sediment and nutrients.