This past weekend I had the pleasure of offering my Horses for Clean Water workshop to horse owners in the scenic Peace River region of Northern Alberta, Canada. The vastness is impressive with geography similar to the United States' Great Plains, except with far fewer people and more agriculture. It was amazing to talk with horse folks who owned so much land - 100 to 300 or more acres, although still many with ten acres or less. Going into their third year of drought in a region that depends on surface water for drinking and rainfall for agriculture, they have some very real, very serious water conservation issues, which were interesting to learn about.
Being in the far north was a bit of a wake-up call; the day I left Boise it was 90 degrees. Upon arriving in Grande Prairie the weather quickly deteriorated to cold, blowing and looking like snow. Winter was definitely knocking at the door, as it soon will be for the rest of us in North America.
This means if you are lucky enough to own horse pasture now is the time to baby it. It's important to realize that a good stand of grass is critical for environmental health. Grass roots hold valuable topsoil in place and prevent erosion. Grass plants minimize pollution by filtering out nutrients and sediments and reducing runoff.
Here are the basics for winter horse pasture management:
In the wintertime, keep horses off saturated and rain soaked soils and dormant or frozen pasture plants. Soggy soils or dormant plants simply cannot survive continuous grazing and trampling in winter months. Compaction of soil makes water filtration and plant growth very difficult. In addition, when the soils are wet horse hooves act like plungers, loosening fine particles of precious topsoil to be washed away by rain. All of this hurts your pastures, diminishing pasture growth and vigor next spring and opening the door for weed invasions.
Never graze your pastures below 3 to 4 inches. This is called the Golden Rule of Pasture Management. I harp on it in all my classes. A pasture plant always needs at least 3 to 4 inches of green, leafy material to manufacture food. If it doesn't have that its health is once again compromised and you will have less forage production next summer and more weeds. (In addition, there are some serious horse health issues for horses on overgrazed pastures. We can save that discussion for a later time or you can research it at TheHorse.com.)
Create a sacrifice area or winter paddock to be used during the winter months. A sacrifice area is a small enclosure such as a corral, run, or pen, which is meant to be your horse's outdoor living quarters. It is called a sacrifice area because you are giving up the use of that small portion of land as a grassy area to benefit the rest of your pastures. Your horse should be confined to the sacrifice area during the winter and early spring when grass plants are dormant and soils are wet. In the summer, utilize the sacrifice area to keep pastures from becoming overgrazed (never below 3 or 4 inches) and to keep your horses from becoming overweight.
A sacrifice area should be located on high, well-drained ground far away from creeks, wetlands, ponds or other water bodies. Using a sacrifice area confines manure and urine to an area where you can manage it. Surround your sacrifice area by a grassy buffer or pasture to act as a filter for contaminated runoff. Using a footing such as hogfuel (wood chips) or crushed rock in a sacrifice area will help cut down on mud problems.
All that said, I am planning something new in the pasture management department to try this winter. Using principles from cattle ranch management, I hope to graze my horses a little bit on our pastures over the winter. Where we live now we have more pasture (7 acres) than in the past and it is a very dry climate. Going into fall we have kept the pasture in good shape and are letting the pasture plants grow very long by choosing not to do a third hay harvest and instead creating a grass "bank" with the extra long grass. Over the winter, during dry periods when the soils aren't wet or soggy, I will carefully graze my horses for short periods; say one or two hours a day in small areas that I rotate around the pasture. I promise to strictly obey the Golden Rule and to never over graze!
So what do you think? Have you tried this approach before? I am very excited to experiment with this and look forward to keeping you posted.