By Savannah Tanner
Emanuel County CEA
With over 80,000 head of horses in the state of Georgia, horse owners are looking for efficient and nutritional forage options to feed to their animals. A good rule of thumb for horse owners is that your horse should consume at least one percent of its body weight in hay or pasture daily. For a 1,200 pound animal that is equivalent to 12 pounds. Horse owners have several options when it comes to selecting forages in order to provide good nutrition to their animals. These include perennial grasses, perennial legumes, and annual grasses.
The most popular perennial grasses for Georgia include bermudagrass, bahiagrass, and tall fescue. While bermudagrass covers the entire state, tall fescue only resides in the northern part of the state and bahiagrass in the southern portion. Other perennial grasses include orchardgrass, timothy, and Kentucky bluegrass.
Bermudagrass grows best on fertile, well-drained soils and is well suited for both grazing and hay production. Bermudagrass is a warm-season crop so production peaks from mid-spring until the fall of the year. There are several recommended varieties. ‘Coastal’ is a finer-stemmed variety that adapts well to the lower portion of the state. ‘Tifton 85’ is both the highest yielding and most digestible bermudagrass variety, but is less cold tolerant than Coastal. ‘Russell’ is a variety similar to Coastal in both yield and quality, but can be established quicker and is more cold-hardy.
Bahiagrass is also a good warm-season option for horse producers in the southern portion of Georgia. Varieties include ‘Tifton 9’, ‘TifQuik’, and ‘UF Riata’. These variates are all higher yielding than ‘Pensacola’ and would be better for pasture or hay production. Bahiagrass usually greens up earlier and stays green longer than bermudagrass.
Tall fescue is also a great perennial grass forage option for horse owners in the northern part of Georgia. Fescue is a cool-season forage and provides grazing from mid-March until early June and from September to December. Tall fescue typically has a negative reputation within the equine industry because of reproductive issues with toxic tall fescue fields caused by the fungal endophyte (Neotyphodium coenophialum). However; testing can be used to detect whether or not this fungal endophyte resides in your pastures. In addition to testing, endophyte-free and novel endophyte tall fescue varieties are available. An endophyte-free fescue has seeds that do not contain the toxic endophyte associated with reproductive diseases in horses. Although endophyte-free fescue is a great way to prevent reproductive concerns with fescue toxicity, we find that removing the toxin endophytes reduces the overall hardiness and persistence of overgrazing and significant heat. Varieties of endophyte-free fescue includes: ‘AU Triumph’ and ‘Jesup.’ Novel endophyte fescue known as ‘MaxQ’ alleviates concerns and symptoms associated with fescue toxicity, but allows the plants to perform and persist well.
Orchardgrass, Timothy, and Kentucky bluegrass are other forage options for the northern-most portion of the state of Georgia. Orchardgrass is a cool-season perennial bunch grass that produces excellent quality forage for grazing hay. Though orchardgrass has excellent quality, it lacks persistency and is susceptible to leaf disease. Timothy is another option for a cool-season perennial forage however it is not well adapted to Georgia and only persists for two to three years. Kentucky bluegrass is another option, but production is low and other cool season forages offer better opportunities.
Perennial grasses are a great forage program in relevance to dependability and reduces forage costs from year to year. Interseeding perennial legumes into a perennial grass pasture offers more total forage, a longer production season, and improved forage quality as a whole. Perennial legumes also offer reduced nitrogen applications due to natural nitrogen fixation within the plant. Perennial legume varieties include clovers, alfalfa and perennial peanut.
Interseeding clover into grasses offers a good combination of useful energy and adequate protein and fiber for your horses. Two species of perennial clover most commonly seeded in pastures include red clover and white clover. Recommended varieties of white clover include ‘Durana’, ‘Patriot’, and ‘Renovation’. White clover is considered more palatable to horses over red clover. Horses grazing red clover may salivate excessively due to the fungus (Rhizontonia leguminicola) which has the potential to induce abortion within pregnant mares. However, research shows the forage must contain more than half of the dry matter in red clover for this to be a concern so this problem is rare. Red clover has excellent seedling vigor, drought tolerance, and forage distribution whereas white clover withstands closer grazing and performs better on poorly drained soils. There are several good varieties of red clover but chose the variety that works best for your part of the state. Talk to your county agent about how to best pair grass and legume crops together.
Alfalfa is an excellent high yielding and excellent quality perennial legume forage known for its hay quality. Alfalfa grows best on well-drained soils with good moisture at a pH of 6.5-7.0 and can persist for 3-6 years in Georgia. While alfalfa is known for its hay quality, certain varieties also persist well in a rotational grazing setting. ‘Amerigraze 702’ and “Alfagraze’ are examples of varieties that work well for both grazing and hay.
Perennial peanut is a warm season legume well suited for the lower Coastal Plains of Georgia. This forage is expected to produce high yields and excellent quality. However, stands are typically slow to begin (2-3 years) and must be sprigged. Control of weeds, insects, and diseases can also be problematic.
Overall, perennial forages offer hay and forage producers long term forage producer in which case usually reduces some forage costs. While perennials are long term and cost effective, annual forages help producers evenly distribute forage production and hay needs throughout the year. Annual forages for horse owners include: small grains, annual ryegrass, crabgrass, and millets.
Small grain annuals consist of rye, oats, and wheat are used as winter annuals for forages. While the most cold-hardy and widely adapted, rye is the least palatable for horses. Oats are the least cold-tolerant, but offer highly palatability and longer forage production for horses. Wheat is the middle man, as it offers palatable, cold-tolerant, and longer grazing periods overall.
In addition to the small grains used for winter annuals, annual ryegrass is an easily established and productive winter annual that produces large amounts of high quality forage for your horses in the spring. Annual ryegrass is highly palatable to equines and can last as long as June in some places.
Summer annuals used in equine production include crabgrass along with millet. Crabgrass is an extremely palatable, high-quality forage that horses typically prefer over bermudagrass. While highly palatable and having excellent quality, crabgrass is highly dependent on rainfall for higher yields. In addition to crabgrass, millers are high yield annual grasses that are drought tolerant and adapt well to a lower pH. Lasting from June to August, millets offer rapid grazing only 30-40 days after planting. ‘Tifleaf-3’ is the latest variety released and is among the most recommended for the state of Georgia.
While there are many forage options, each variety and species has their strengths and weaknesses while feeding your equines. Forage testing is an excellent way to determine how well your forages can meet the nutritional needs your horses. While visual testing is a great way to determine whether a hay is moldy, visual observations often make little known about the quality of your forages. Forage testing conducted by the University of Georgia provides accurate information about the quality of your forages. Regardless of which lab you submit your forage samples to, it is important to check the crude protein, moisture, acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber, calcium, and phosphorus to ensure your forages are meeting the requirements of your horses.