We all know horses want to eat grass pretty much all day, but did you know they are terrible at managing how they eat the grass in their pastures? This is an ongoing research topic for me; how to manage my pastures! I google this starting in the winter so I am all ready for spring on what I will do. The problem is I haven’t really implemented what I have learned until hopefully this year. When I had just Bailey, I let her go anywhere in the pastures all the time. There was plenty of grass for her and I didn’t rotate her to other pastures and fence her off the grazed pasture. Since my pastures aren’t lush, she could enjoy being on the pastures 24 hours a day without getting heavy.
I start with high expectations of keeping them in a sacrifice paddock in early spring, then letting the grass reach that magical height of 6-8″ in the pasture, then allowing them to eat that pasture grass for a few weeks, then moving them off to another pasture. Sounds easy and logical, but it hasn’t worked out that well in the past. Plus I have to keep my 2 horses in separate pastures all the time and configure the pastures to have entrance access to their stalls since my horses have 24 hour turnout.
Now going into my second year with two horses, I have a better idea of what each horse needs and I am tailoring my pasture rotations based on my horses. Bailey likes to eat grass from the second she sees green in February. She really has no interest in hay so she will get 2 larger pasture areas that I will rotate her between. Bailey is hardly ever in her stall and prefers being out in the pastures all the time. Cheyenne loves hay year round, loves to be in her stall by her choice, and she loves grass too. With that information I have created what I think is the perfect situation for pasture management for my horses.
Each horse has about a 1/4 acre sacrifice area that comes off the back of their stall and bends the length of the enclosed white 3 rail fence. They both are in the sacrifice area during the night hours. There is some grass in the sacrifice paddocks.
Bailey will rotate between 2 pastures that are about a 1/2 acre each. Cheyenne who is in need of exercise to lose some of that winter weight will be getting the entire outside of the white 3 rail fence. The grass width path around the entire white 3 rail fence is 40′ wide and that then meets up to the side of Bailey’s pasture. This allows both horses to always be side by side if they choose in a pasture.
This March I was lucky enough to get a head start on solving a very wet area in one of the pastures. For over 25 years I would tell people after a good rain or snow melt I have “lake property”. After several quotes, I hired a person to solve that issue with a 4″ drainage pipe dropped a few feet into the ground with stone and running 300′ across the pasture to an existing culvert pipe. This should make a huge difference this year on that pasture.
Horses are selective grazers, basing their choice of pasture plants on what tastes good as well as availability. Horses prefer to eat young, immature plants and will graze some areas of a pasture down to the bare ground. In other parts of the pasture, plants are avoided and allowed to grow to maturity, which lessens the taste and nutrient availability. Horses will not graze in areas where they defecate, so pasture plants around manure piles are also mature and less tasty. This grazing pattern is often called “spot” grazing. Horses can also graze much closer to the ground because they have upper and lower incisors. Clipping off the plants too close to the ground can cause problems for plant regrowth.
Close cropping of pasture plants, trampling and selective grazing can seriously affect the productivity of a pasture. Selective grazing of areas with short, new growth over and over again, without giving the plants a reprieve, causes the plants to decline in vigor or persistence. As the desirable species of forage are grazed out or trampled, weeds tend to invade the pasture. Thus, horses can quickly turn a pasture into a weed patch or dry lot.
Horse pastures should be used in a rotational grazing approach, if at all possible. This style of grazing, properly done, enhances forage production and quality. Without an acceptable rotational grazing approach, the reverse of all the above will happen to some degree, even causing the pasture to die. Recovery periods are crucial to the success of a rotational grazing.
Rotational grazing can be accomplished many ways in multiple paddocks or single pastures. Probably the best way is to have two to four paddocks for one group and graze one area at a time. When the pasture being grazed is used, or spot grazed, rotate horses to another pasture and graze it. The pasture just grazed by horses may need to be clipped, mowed, shredded, or grazed off by other livestock.
My goals for this season, and I am going to try to stick to this game plan!
- Do not begin grazing until pasture vegetation averages 6 to 8 inches height.
- Avoid overgrazing by removing horses when vegetation averages 3 to 4 inches.
- Manage grazing more effectively by incorporating a rotational grazing system or limited grazing plan.
- Mow, harrow and fertilize when appropriate to keep your pasture productive.
- Give pastures adequate rest from grazing.
- Create a sacrifice area to conveniently keep horses off pastures when necessary.
- Take good care of your pasture, and it will take good care of your horse.
The good news is, if things don’t work out exactly as planned, there is always hay to supplement your horses.