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MARE Center collaborates with University of Maryland on study that evaluates turfgrass to develop safe equine grazing options

The Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension (MARE) Center is partnering with the University of Maryland in an innovative study evaluating turfgrass varieties used on horse farms. The goal of the study is to find out what grasses best stand up in high-traffic areas to erosion and soil loss; water quality issues; and a lack of available forage without providing a surplus of non-structural carbohydrates that can lead to laminitis, a painful inflammatory hoof condition that can affect any horse, of any age or sex, at any time of the year.

Measurement of plots at the MARE Left to right: Katie Kaufman, a Virginia Tech MARE Center grad student; Aubrey Lowrey; and Shayan Ghajar, MARE Center program coordinator measure plots for cool-season turfgrass

Bridgett McIntosh, extension equine specialist at the MARE Center, is working with Aubrey Lowrey, a Ph.D. student from the University of Maryland, and her advisors to design a study that evaluates traffic tolerance, palatability, and nutritional characteristics of six warm season turfgrass cultivars (plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding) and eight cool-season turfgrass cultivars at both the MARE Center in Middleburg and the University of Maryland Paint Branch Turfgrass Research Facility in College Park.

This past summer, with the help of Maggie Hines, a MARE Center intern, and Shayan Ghajar, Equine Extension Program coordinator, the team designed the study area; prepared a clean seed bed; planted six warm season cultivars; tended the seedlings; monitored their growth; and controlled weeds through a combination of mowing and selective herbicides. In late August and early fall, they sprayed the existing fescue pasture with glyphosate to create a weed-free seed bed; tilled the ground; and planted eight cool season turfgrass cultivars.

McIntosh said that both the warm and cool season cultivars should be ready for grazing next spring after the seedlings have had sufficient time to establish roots and spread over their designated plots. The various cultivars will be evaluated from a nutritional standpoint for their potential use as a food source for horses prone to equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), low levels of sugars that instigate hindgut acidosis and lead to episodes of laminitis.

"This project is providing a great opportunity to learn about managing a horse population with specific nutritional needs so we are able to develop a grazing system that is supportive of the health of EMS equines as well as maintaining our responsibility for environmental stewardship," said Lowrey.

McIntosh added that "all horse owners agree that our horses deserve safe grass and our neighbors deserve clean water. This project can help us provide a roadmap for equine land managers to achieve both."

Posted November 4, 2015