Soil Testing your Horse Pasture

Most of us have heard the old adage “no foot – no horse”.

Well something similar can be said about pasture… “poor soil – poor pasture”.

The most important element of having good grass in your pasture starts long before you plant the seed. Just as you spend time each day learning the strengths and weaknesses of your horse you need to take some time to get to know the soil that forms the foundation of your horse’s turnout area.

To find out how much, if any, fertilizer may be needed in a horse pasture it is necessary to test the nutrient levels in your soil. Most experts recommend testing your pasture soil every 3 years. It is not a difficult process and it can save you a lot of money in fertilizer and seed.

It is generally accepted that the optimum time to take a soil sample is in the fall, but anytime the soil is relatively dry is acceptable. After a light rain is best, because if you wait until the ground is too dry – you may feel you would be better off using a jack hammer. If your pasture has a similar soil type, drainage capacity and topography you can take one sample for up to 20 acres. If the pasture has significantly different areas ( that one corner that is always wet, a steep hill, rocky, shaded or totally sunny areas), then take one sample for each area.

An easy way to find out the soil type, drainage and topography of your fields is by using the NRCS online Web Soil Survey It is relatively easy to use and will give you a detailed soils map of any chosen area and in-depth descriptions of each soil type.

But back to your soil sample…

To collect a sample, walk in a ‘W’ pattern and use a soil probe or a shovel to dig down 6”-8″. Remove the sod and place the shovel full of soil in a clean plastic bucket. Walk a “W” pattern and repeat this several times as you make your way across the field. When finished sampling, mix the soil in the bucket and pour it into the paper bag provided by your extension office or soil analysis lab ( these are generally about the size of a sandwich bag or 2 cups). Repeat this procedure for each unique area of the pasture.

If you have more than one sample, be sure to give each field a name you will remember – Lower 40 or   2 acres west of the barn, don’t just list Field 1 and Field 2 as you might forget which one is which!

You may laugh but… I’ve seen it happen.

In some states soils samples can be sent to a University Soil Testing Lab but there are also private/commercial laboratories as well. You can Google a lab location ( make sure they process PASTURE soil samples as the testing yields different results for garden soils) but your best source of information is your County Extension office. They will most likely have a list of labs as well as the supplies you’ll need including a soil probe you can borrow. Generally this costs between $8 -15 a sample.

When the soil analysis is received, it will list phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, pH, and organic matter levels. Based on this information, an accurate fertilizer mix and application can be made. Again if you need help interpreting the results…call your County Extension agent. They are there to help you achieve your goals, they know the local soils and have the training required to help you with the next step.

It takes some planning and a bit of effort but maintaining the proper nutrients levels and PH of a soil can drastically improve grass quality and help eliminate weeds. All of which ultimately helps your bottom line because you need to reseed less often and can lower pesticide cost and use.

Here’s a link to a short video about soil testing from the Snohomish Soil Conservation District

Check back next week for another blog on Equine Management.

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Shelly Ingram

I am a third generation horsewoman; My father operated a 50 horse boarding and training facility in northern California, where he specialized in re-training spoiled horses. I was his demonstration rider and general assistant in all aspects of running the ranch. I went on to work for several major show and race horse trainers, eventually opening my own barn where I focused on Junior and Amateur riders. I have trained numerous champion horses and riders on all levels and in variety of disciplines. I have also worked as a journalist and have more than a decade of experience in land use planning.

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