Foxtail barley in and around horse pastures

Foxtail barley may occasionally be found in and around horse pastures, management precautions must be taken when horses and other livestock graze it.

Foxtail barley is an attractive short-lived native perennial cool season bunchgrass that ranges in height from one to three feet tall. Common places to find foxtail barley include: pastures, roadsides, meadows, moist soils and disturbed areas throughout Michigan.

Foxtail barley
Foxtail barley

This plant has fair to good forage value for horses up to the time when seed heads develop. During the vegetative stage before seed head development, foxtail barley can be safely grazed. However, as common with most grasses, forage quality begins to decrease after seed head development. Once seed development begins, typically from May to August, grazing foxtail barley can cause problems for horses and other livestock that graze it.

Horses and livestock consuming seeds of foxtail barley can be troublesome. When the seeds form, awns with small sharp barbs along the edge extend from the seed. These awns can abrade or become lodged in the skin, mouth, nose, and eyes of grazing horses and livestock. Signs that your horse or livestock have grazed foxtail barley or consumed hay contaminated with foxtail barley may consist of: drooling and lack of appetite. Drooling and loss of appetite are caused by awns that are lodged in the mouth and most likely caused the mouth to become inflamed and sore, resulting in the formation of abscesses.

Horses and other livestock typically avoid grazing foxtail barley once seed head formation occurs if other forage is available. Michigan State University Extension advises that feeding hay contaminated with foxtail barley seed heads should be avoided.

Good forage management practices will help to reduce the amount of seed produced by foxtail barley as well as minimize the recruitment of new foxtail barely plants in pastures. This can be accomplished either mechanically or chemically. Mechanical control can start early in the season with mowing and intense grazing to help reduce or prevent seed growth. Mowing should be conducted within 10 days of seed head emergence. Foxtail barley that grows in smaller bunches can be chemically spot treated. It is important to always read labels for grazing restrictions when using any chemical on pastures or hay fields. In extreme cases, where pastures or hay fields have been invaded by foxtail barley, these areas may need to be reseeded.