Choosing Forages for Horse Pastures

Last Updated on February 25, 2022 by Allison Price

Horses can benefit from healthy pastures rich in nutritive grasses. Some horses can even eat only high-quality pasture. Planting the right forage types is key to creating good pasture.

Amanda Grev, MSc, PhD, a pasture and forage specialist, presented different types of forage and how to choose the right ones for your horse’s horse pasture.

Make sure you have a good management of your pastures. She said that no forage species will survive if it is constantly overgrazed and mismanaged. “Good pasture requires good management. This is true regardless of the forage species in our fields.

Forage Characteristics

Grev described the wide range of forage characteristics that property owners must understand when choosing a species.

Warm vs.

Cool-season forages grow well in cool, humid climates, as their names suggest. They can be found between 60 and 80 degrees F, while warm-season foods thrive in hot, dry climates (75 to 90 degrees F). Grev explained that cool season forages are more productive in the spring and autumn, and less in the summer. The opposite is true for warm-season forages, which grow mainly in the summer.

Cool-season forages include Kentucky Bluegrass, Timothy and Orchardgrass. Warm-season forages include Bermuda grass and big bluestem as well as Indian grass.

Grev stated that it is important to take into account where you are located when deciding whether a cool-season or warm-season forage is right. “Cool-season foods dominate the northern half of the United States. Warm-season foods are found in the southern half. Maryland, for example, falls into this transition zone that allows us to have both warm-season and cool-season foods.

Grasses and Legumes

Their nutrient content is the main difference between grasses, legumes, and other plants. Grev stated that grasses are lower in protein, calcium, and a bit lower in caloric values. They also have higher fiber content than legumes. Legumes are more nutritious than grasses and have higher feed intakes. They also consume more digestible energy. They are also more popular with livestock.

She said that legumes can also fix nitrogen, which means they need less fertilizer to grow.

Grev stated that when comparing forage quality at different stages of maturity, legumes tend to be the best and warm-season grasses, the worst.

Annuals vs.

Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, orchardgrass and timothy are perennial forages that grow every year. However, they are slower to establish and grow than annuals. Grev recommended perennial plants for permanent pastures.

Annual species like annual ryegrass and wheat must be replanted every year.

Grev stated that annuals could be useful additions for some perennial forages. They can prolong the grazing season into spring or fall, or earlier or later. An annual can be used to replace pasture in emergency situations such as flooding, drought, winterkilled fodder, or flooding. They are also useful in pasture renovation following neglectful grazing or uncooperative weather.

She said that property owners can plant annual forages in any of these situations to help control weeds and provide growth. They also have the option to transition back to perennials by planting one or more cycles.

Choosing Forages for Horse Pastures

Grev said that the most important determinant of nutritional quality is maturity. In their vegetative state, leafy forages have higher energy and protein levels. She said that forages become more fibrous and stemmy as they age.

Two main types of forage growth characteristics are available: bunchgrasses with thick, tufted bunches and sod-forming grasses with lateral growth habits.

Grev stated that bunchgrasses do not always spread to bare spots. “They will continue to grow in the clump, while sod-forming grass will spread and fill in some of the bare spots,” Grev said.

She explained that sod-forming grasses can tolerate close grazing than bunchgrasses. Bunchgrasses are usually higher yielding, grow taller, and thicker.

Perennials Cool-Season Perennials

Grev described the pros and cons of various cool-season perennial forage choices, which are those species most often found in temperate zones horse pastures.

Orchardgrass, aka “The Class Favorite

Grev stated that this bunchgrass is popular and widely used. It’s:

  • Productive;
  • Palatable;
  • Good regrowth, with sufficient fertility and moisture
  • Compatible with legumes and often grown in mixtures such as alfalfa/orchardgrass; and
  • It is relatively easy to set up and it is quick.

It’s, however:

  • Sensitive to cutting height and overgrazing. Orchardgrass stores a lot of energy in its bottom few inches, so constantly cutting orgrazing at a low height can deplete these energy reserves. Grev explained.
  • Sensitive soil fertility
  • Sensitive to some diseases;
  • It requires good management and cannot be misused.

Tall fescue, also known as “Mr. Persistent”

This variety of bunchgrass is hardy and can spread easily. Its benefits include being:

  • Long-lasting and deeply rooted;
  • It can tolerate traffic and close grazing. Grev said that it can take a little more grazing pressure, hoof traffic or grazing pressure than orchardgrass.
  • It can be used in a variety of soils and climates.
  • High yielding and good seasonal growth distribution

There are some downsides to this system:

  • It is less palatable than other forages and of lower quality.
  • Endophyte-infected fescue can be toxic to pregnant mares. Grev explained that this tall fescue plant contains an endophyte which produces toxic alkaloids that can affect mare reproductive performance. There are also endophyte-free types (which have no adverse effects on livestock, but decreased plant vigor, longevity and longevity). Also, there is novel endophyte (researchers created an endophyte which is not toxic but retains forage persistence as well as hardiness).

Timothy, aka “One Hit Wonder”

This bunchgrass is well-known for its high production at the beginning of the year and then being less productive during the rest of the grazing seasons, according to Grev. There are many benefits to this bunchgrass:

  • It’s very palatable.
  • High-quality and
  • Relatively quick to establish.

These cons include:

  • There is very little regrowth
  • In hot or dry environments, poor growth
  • Being less competitive and more short-lived than other species
  • A shallow root system is a good thing.
  • Frequent cutting and grazing can easily weaken the animal.

Grev stated that Timothy is more suited to hay than grazing.

Perennial Ryegrass, also known as “Fair Weather Fan”

This bunchgrass is most at home in warm climates. Its pros include:

  • Being high-quality;
  • Being very palatable;
  • Good yield is important
  • Good seedling vigor and speed of establishment.

It can also be fragile and sensitive to droughts or high temperatures.

Kentucky bluegrass, aka “The Turf Maker”

This dense sod-former is great at filling in any bare spots. It’s also:

  • Palatable;
  • High quality;
  • Sensitive to frequent or close grazing.

Grev stated that Kentucky bluegrass is low-growing, not as productive, and does not yield as high a yield as other species. It can also go dormant in hot or dry conditions.

Smooth Bromegrass aka “Slow and Steady”.

It can be hard to establish this sod-former, but once you do it, it is very persistent, she said. Its benefits include being:

  • High-quality and
  • Deep-rooted.
  • Fairly resilient and capable of surviving periods of drought or extreme temperatures.

It is slow to establish and produces uneven yield distribution. Also, it experiences poor growth in hot or dry environments. Grev stated that smooth bromegrass is more suitable for grazing than for hay.

Reed Canarygrass, aka “The Pool Boy”,

This sod-former is well-known for its ability to thrive in wet areas. These are some of its pros:

  • High-yielding;
  • Once stable, persistent; and
  • Flood- and drought-tolerant

Grev stated that it is slower and more difficult than other species to establish, but can be less tasty once mature and can be stemmy.

Alfalfa, aka “Queen Of Forages”

This legume is high-quality and has a high productivity. These are just a few of the many benefits that this legume has:

  • It’s very palatable.
  • High productivity
  • Drought-resistant;
  • Deep-rooted;
  • They are long-lasting and durable.
  • This is a great summer producer.

Alfalfa has a few drawbacks. It requires soil fertility that is high in pH and good drainage. It can also be more expensive and difficult to set up, Grev said. She maintained, however, that it is one of the most high-quality forages in terms of production and quality.

Red clover, aka “Red Head Stepchild”

Grev stated that although this legume is often regarded as a lower quality than alfalfa, it can still be an excellent forage choice. It’s:

  • Easy to establish;
  • Good quality and good yield;
  • It is very palatable.
  • Alfalfa is more tolerant to acidic and poorly drained soils.

However, it has a shorter life span than alfalfa with a standing time of only two to three years.

White Clover aka “Old Faithful”

Grev said that this legume seems to be everywhere and it tends to stay there. The pros of this legume include:

  • Easy to establish;
  • It’s very palatable.
  • Good-quality;
  • Mixable; and
  • Tolerable for grazing

Some of its cons are:

  • Red clover and alfalfa are less yielding than those of red clover;
  • Shade is a problem that can occur when taller forages shade the clover below. Grev suggested planting Ladino, a taller, larger-growing white clover.

Forage Chicory, aka “Popeye’s Pick”,

Grev said that this forb should not be confused with chicory’s tough weed form. It is high-quality and looks similar to spinach leaves. Its benefits include being:

  • High-quality;
  • Deep-rooted;
  • Palatable;
  • Tolerant to drought;
  • This is a great summer producer.

Grev stated that it may also be antiparasitic (anthelmintic) for ruminants. Forage chicory has the following downsides:

  • Bolting is possible when the tall stems rise above the base forage growth.
  • Well-drained soils are better;
  • They are shorter-lived than other species.

Grev stated that forage chicory, which is a pasture forage, is becoming more popular and better suited to grazing than haying.

Because they are less common in the temperate zones, she didn’t explore warm-season perennial grass species. Some examples include Bermudagrass and bahiagrass as well as Indiangrass, big bluestems, big bluestems, Indiangrasses, Indiangrass, little bluestem, and Indian gamagrass.

Cool-Season Annuals

Grev stated that the most common cool-season perennials for horse pastures were:

Annual/Italian ryegrass

This is a very tasty, high-quality species that can be easily established, with good seedling vigor and rapid growth. Grev stated that it provides forage in the fall and spring, and can also be intersown if necessary to fill in any gaps. She said that Ryegrass can be competitive in mixtures, and is not very tolerant to drought or high temperatures.

Winter cereals

Easy to grow cereals like wheat, barley, rye and rye have high quality and good yields. Grev stated that they can be grazed at a young age or harvested later. She warned that cereals can be very different in terms of their cold tolerance, quality and maturity rate.

Warm-Season Annuals

There are two popular warm-season pasture forages:

Pearl millet

This species is resistant to drought and acidic soils. It is easy to establish and does not require prussic acids like other warm-season annuals. It can also grow very tall and have a larger stem, which makes it susceptible to nitrate accumulation. Grev suggested that dwarf varieties be chosen, as they are smaller, more leafy, and more suited to grazing. She advised that pearl millet must be grazed or mowned with 6-10 inches of stubble to encourage regrowth. This is more than any other species.

Grev said that Teff is tasty and fine-stemmed, with a high ratio of leaf-to stem. It is good-quality, drought-resistant, fast-growing, and does not have prussic acid toxicity or nitrate toxicity. Due to its small seeds and low seedling viability, it can be challenging to establish. Teff can also be sensitive to frost and cool soils. It is also susceptible to overgrazing, low cutting heights, and high temperatures. Grev said that although it is more difficult, it can be done if it works.


She explained that newer varieties of crabgrass can be grazed. They are productive, high-quality, leafy, drought-tolerant, can reseed in acidic soils if permitted, and do not contain prussic acid nor nitrate toxicity. She noted that the small size of their seeds can make it difficult to plant.

Forage Selection

After reviewing all the forage options available, how can you decide which one to plant in your field?

Grev said that you should match your plants to the soil and site characteristics. This includes drainage, moisture holding capacity and fertility. Next, match plants to their intended uses. Are you going to use your fields for grazing or hay? Are you looking for permanent (perennial), or temporary (annual), growth? What season (cold- or warm-season), is it? What type of pasture management system (e.g. grazing pressure), do you use?

Match plants with the horses you have. For example, a nursing mare or a hard-working horse will require a higher relative forage standard than an idle, lightly working horse.

Grev said, “Remember soil and land characteristics as well as management strategies and goals and animal needs.” Then, choose one or two base forages. You can use a mixture of grasses and legumes.

Select a variety that is suitable for your area’s climate and terrain. Grev suggested that you look at the variety trials at local universities (e.g. Penn State, University of Kentucky) to see how these forage types have performed under different conditions.

Take-Home Message

For a review, Grev’s criteria for selecting pasture forage include:

  • Type and characteristics of the soil, including drainage, fertility and soil pH.
  • The amount of land and the topography/slope of this land. She said that some people do better in low-lying areas with more rainfall, while others have greater persistence on slopes higher up.
  • The intended use of the pasture (e.g., hay or pasture, permanent vs. temporal, time of year and length of grazing season), management system, etc. );
  • Species, classes, and numbers of animals;
  • Some varieties are more resistant or adapted to disease or insect pressure than others.

You can ask your local extension office or agent for help in identifying suitable pasture forage species for your area and property.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!