A good pasture includes a mix of forage plants, each with its own growing pattern and benefits. Which ones a client chooses may vary on local climate, soil type, soil condition, drainage, local incidence of plant diseases and pests, and how the pasture may be used. As many as five different types of plants can be seeded, such as warm- or cool-season perennial or annual grasses and legumes.
Annual cereal grains, such as winter wheat must be planted yearly, but perennials and legumes will come back year after year if not overgrazed. The advantage of annuals is that their nutritive value is generally higher than that of perennials, with cool-season annuals being the highest.
Bermudagrass, bahiagrass and digitgrasses, like pangola are examples of warm-season perennials. They produce major growth during the summer and don't grow well in cold winter areas. Cool-season perennials, such as reed canary grass, fescue, bromegrass and orchardgrass, grow rapidly in the spring and fall and endure cold winters well. Yet they produce little to no new growth during the hot summer months.
Warm-season annuals include sorghum, sudangrass and johnsongrass. They are of limited value in horse pastures as a rule. But cool-season annuals such as cereal grains can provide a concentrated amount of nutritious grazing for a short spring season without decreasing their yield when harvested for grain and straw later in the summer.
In areas where winter wheat is grown, livestock are often grazed on the young plants during early spring. If the wheat is not to be harvested, the crop can be grazed for another 2 months while providing higher protein and digestible energy than alfalfa. This makes it particularly appropriate for young horses, though calcium levels may have to be supplemented.
Legumes (such as clovers, alfalfa, vetch and birdsfoot trefoil) are higher in protein, calcium, dietary energy and most vitamins than virtually any type of grass. Because they produce their own nitrogen, they are in a sense self-fertilizing, improving the nutritive content of an entire pasture and even improving the physical condition of shallow clay soils. But they are less tolerant of extremes in weather and poor soil conditions than grasses. Because they don't form dense root mats as some grasses do, they're less hardy in a high-traffic areas.
Birdsfoot trefoil is one pasture plant that can be very useful in fields with low, wet areas, where it roots and grows better than most other plants.
Legumes are most beneficial when included as part of a pasture mix. They grow during periods when warm-weather perennials shut down, prolonging seasonal forage production. Most horses also consider them more palatable than grasses. Many agricultural experts consider a mix of 60% grasses and 40% legumes to be ideal for horse pastures.
The combinations of forage plants are practically limitless and will vary according to local climate and soil conditions. If your footcare clients are unsure as to which legumes or grasses they'd like to plant, they should consult an agriculture extension agent or feed-and-seed store representative who can likely recommend a pasture mix specifically formulated for the area. Once they've established an improved pasture, it needs to be managed judiciously. The reward will be a thousand-fold, with nutritious, low-cost forage for their horses.