Seedbed Preparation And Fertilizing Horse Pastures

The first step in pasture establishment is to test the soil for fertilization recommendations. Phosphorus and nitrogen are generally necessary for stand establishment in North Dakota. Soil sampling should be conducted by taking soil cores as deep as tillage.

Phosphorus is a key component to getting a pasture stand established. Use rates recommended for grass only or grass-legume mixtures that are based on your soil test level and yield goal. Nitrogen is the most limiting nutrient in North Dakota soils.

Typically, 40 to 60 pounds per acre of actual nitrogen is applied prior to the last tillage. Soil testing is recommended to obtain the levels required.

Seedbed Preparation:

Preparing a weed-free, firm seedbed is the most important component to developing a successful stand of grass within the shortest time period. Field preparation should be done as early in the spring as field conditions allow. Less tillage will be necessary on smooth, firm surfaces.

In fact, no tillage may be needed if the soil surface is firm and smooth and the previous crop was soybeans, small grains or row crops, providing phosphorus and potassium were found to be adequate.

Renovating an existing sod will require destroying the old sod with a moldboard plow or a herbicide. Horses should be held off herbicide treated pasture for at least 10 days. Herbicide may make some poisonous plants attractive or palatable. Always check the label for any recommendations.

The results should be a clean and firm seedbed. Test the firmness by walking in the field. Your foot should sink no more than one inch. Consider firming the field with a cultipacker just ahead of seeding. A loose seedbed can reduce stand establishment due to poor soil-seed contact.


The first step in seeding is determining the best seed mixture for your operation. There are a number of seed options that favor horse pastures in North Dakota, including pure grass stands and grass-legume stands.

Adding a legume to the seed mixture often achieves high nutritional quality and quantity. Alfalfa will be the best choice as a legume in North Dakota due to drought tolerance compared to other legumes. A number of alfalfa varieties have been developed that tolerate moderate levels of grazing in a pastureland situation.

Refer to Tables 3 and 4 to help determine seeding mixtures on well-drained or somewhat poorly drained soils in North Dakota. Poorly drained soils should be seeded with either reed canary grass or Garrison creeping foxtail.

These grasses can tolerate standing water for short periods of time and need high moisture areas. The seeds are very small and need only be planted at rates of 2 to 4 pounds per acre. Seeding can be done either in late fall when there is no possibility germination will occur or in early spring as soon as field conditions allow. If a legume is part of the mix, spring seeding is recommended because of better stand establishment.

A cover crop of oats is common but usually not necessary. It will compete with the grasses and legume for stand establishment, sometimes detrimental during dry conditions. Economically, income from the grain is usually offset by reduced pasture yields.

Seeding should be shallow,  and followed by packing wheels or a cultipacker. Deeply planted grasses and legumes do not have sufficient seedling vigor to emerge and establish. Seeding rates are recommended in Tables 3 and 4 for specific grass and grass-legume mixtures.

If other species and seeding rates are desired, contact your local county agent or Soil Conservation Service office. Generally, 6 to 8 pounds of grass seed plus one to 3 pounds of the desired legume seed per acre are common.


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