You might know the feeling when you lift your foot to take a step across your horse's paddock and suddenly realize that your boot has been left behind and your soaked foot is half a step away from it in ankle-deep mud. Mud is a problem anywhere water meets bare soil. And during the last few years Kentucky horse farms have had their share of mud.
Horses are creatures of habit and return to the same grazing areas repeatedly. This behavior causes overgrazing and trampling that inevitably reduces grass coverage and results in muddy areas. Recent extreme weather conditions have further thinned Kentucky pastures, magnifying the mud issue. Mud is not only unattractive, it also is dangerous for horses and people to move around in, harbors bacteria, and decreases pasture productivity. However, the following pasture management practices can help reduce mud and its associated challenges.
Overseeding heavy traffic areas can prevent or correct mud issues. Depending on your method, overseeding can be a long-term solution or a short-term simple fix. The ideal method is to remove horses from the paddock or fence off an area, then seed into a prepared seedbed or killed sod with perennial grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass, and endophyte-free tall fescue. This requires seeding equipment, sacrificing some of your turnout, and waiting six or more months for the seedlings to fully establish, but results can last for years.
On the other hand, perennial and annual ryegrass provide short-term overseeding options for horse owners that are quick to establish and relatively inexpensive. Annual ryegrass will establish very quickly and is inexpensive; however, it only survives until midsummer. Perennial ryegrass survives for about two years in Kentucky if not overgrazed, but it is a bit more costly and slightly slower to establish. Unlike other cool season grasses, ryegrasses can be broadcast on top of the ground and will still germinate and take root. In small, high-traffic areas, this might be the simplest mud management method. Keeping horses and people off this area as long as possible will produce the best results; consider relocating high-traffic sites such as hay racks and water tanks, or walking horses through a different gate until the root is established. Broadcast seeding (also known as top seeding) of other forage species (Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass, etc.) will not be successful unless the area is dragged or cultipacked (to compact the soil) after seeding to bury the seed. Even when overseeding ryegrass, dragging is recommended.
Successful overseeding depends on several factors including time of seeding, seed quality, and soil fertility. Always purchase certified seed of improved varieties and consider performing a soil test before seeding. Make sure to use endophyte-free perennial ryegrass, since turf-type perennial ryegrass contains an endophyte similar to that found in tall fescue, which can create problems for pregnant mares. Early March is the best time for spring overseeding in Kentucky.
High Traffic Area Pads
Sometimes seeding can't provide enough relief from mud. Paddocks with only one gate or water source, for instance, face mud issues constantly, especially when overstocked. In these cases owners can install high traffic area pads. These pads do require some investment; however, they will reduce or eliminate mud for years to come.
A high traffic area pad or feeding pad consists of geotextile fabric, No. 4 crushed stone, and a dense grade aggregate installed over an excavated area. The result is a pad of smooth, dry surface similar to concrete. The geotextile fabric prevents mud from seeping up into the pad and eventually engulfing the area. Typically, poured concrete will cost around $4 per square foot. The University of Kentucky Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department estimated the cost of a high traffic area pad around 80 cents per square foot.
High traffic area pads can be installed anywhere that equine or machine traffic is too high to establish cover, including around gates, water/feed sources, and along fence lines or shade areas.
Preventing Mud in the Future
Mud prevention requires long-range planning and a balance between managing horses and managing pastures. Establishing a sacrifice area is a simple way to decrease pasture damage during times of heavy moisture or excessive drought. A sacrifice area is similar to a drylot that will provide an alternative turnout space to pasture. Ideally, the sacrifice area should be prepared similarly to the high traffic pad as described above.
Pasture rotation is one of the simplest ways to avoid mud issues. By giving a pasture a rest period, bare soil often will be reduced naturally. When paired with overseeding, it will provide a greater increase in cover. Pasture rotation only requires two paddocks, but three or more are recommended to provide each paddock with longer rest.
The University of Kentucky has several publications related to mud management. Please see the list of publications below for more information. These, as well as other pasture-related information, can be found at www.uky.edu/Ag/forage with equine specific publications listed under "Horse Links." Contact your local county agriculture and natural resource agent with specific questions or issues.
Ray Smith, PhD, is a forage extension specialist at the University of Kentucky. Krista Cotten is the assistant coordinator of UK's Horse Pasture Evaluation Program.
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Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.