It’s that time of year when the grass gets greener and grows fast! But is it time to let your horses begin grazing on the pastures you’ve carefully fenced off all winter? Putting horses out too soon can reduce the productivity of your pastures this coming summer and letting your horses graze too much can be dangerous to horse health. Here are some considerations to keep in mind before you open up the gates to the pasture.
By dividing a pasture area into smaller fields and rotating horses through them, you can encourage horses to graze more evenly, keep pasture grasses from becoming overgrazed, and guarantee fresh grass for a longer period of time during the growing season.
- Don’t let your horses have too much grass too quickly! Once horses begin grazing again limit turn-out time—too much grass can cause very serious digestive issues in the spring when a horse’s gut is not used to the change in diet. Start with about an hour at a time, and work up to several hours over a period of several weeks. For any questions on how much grazing time is safe for your horse, consult your veterinarian for their recommendations.
- For healthy grass plants, keep horses off of pastures until soils are no longer soggy. One of the most important aspects of pasture management is the time you keep horses off the pasture. Saturated soils and dormant plants cannot survive continuous grazing and trampling. When soils are still wet they are easily compacted, suffocating the roots of grass plants. A simple test for sogginess is to walk out in your fields and see if you leave a footprint—if you do, you know it’s too wet and that the weight of a horse will be sure to compact the soil.
- Do a Soil Test. Fertilizer is almost always overused and may not be needed at all—just because it’s spring doesn’t mean it’s time to fertilize. If you apply fertilizer and your pasture grass doesn’t need it, you’ve just wasted your time and money plus the excess fertilizer will most likely be washed into nearby streams and lakes. Besides being damaging to the environment, the cost of purchasing fertilizer year after year can really add up and the time you spend spreading it could be better spent on other activities around your horse farm. The best way to find out if your pastures actually need to be fertilized is to do a soil test. By finding out what your soil needs you will be able choose a fertilizer with the right amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Many fertilizers are high in nitrogen and that may not be what your grass plants need. Nitrogen promotes plant growth but in the spring most plants are going to grow vigorously on their own. Soil testing is relatively inexpensive and you can get a list of soil testing labs from your local Conservation District or Extension office, as well as advice on the best way to take a soil sample. If you do find that you need to fertilize, fertilizing in mid-spring and/or late fall should be plenty.
- Apply a Green Band-Aid. Another thing you can do to encourage a thick, healthy stand of grass is to spread grass seed in areas that have bare spots or where grass isn’t growing as thick as you’d like. Remember: bare spots provide a haven for weeds in summer and mud in the winter! For most parts of North America a mix of seed containing Orchard grass, Perennial Rye grass, Timothy and Tall Fescue work best.
- Keep pastures healthy by rotating grazing areas. By dividing a pasture area into smaller fields and rotating horses through them, you can encourage horses to graze more evenly, keep pasture grasses from becoming overgrazed and guarantee fresh grass for a longer period of time during the growing season. Remember the golden rule of grazing: never allow grass to be grazed shorter than three inches. This ensures that the grass will have enough reserves left after grazing to permit rapid regrowth. Consider the bottom three inches of the grass plant is an energy collector that needs to be left for the plant. Once horses have grazed the majority of the grass in a pasture down to three or four inches, rotate them on to the next pasture. You can put horses back on pastures when the grass has re-grown to about six to eight inches.
- Types of fencing for rotational grazing. When using a rotational grazing system, you can separate grazing paddocks with permanent or temporary (usually electric) fencing. It’s generally easiest to establish as many permanent grazing paddocks as you think you’ll need—you can always hook up temporary electric wire or tape if you need to subdivide further. However, if you want to keep fencing costs down you can also move temporary fencing with the horses as you switch them from one grazing area to another. As a first step towards a rotational grazing system, you may want to first try dividing an existing large pasture in half and alternate grazing between the two halves. After gaining some experience with rotational grazing try further subdividing. Portable electric fencing is lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to move for pasture rotation. High tensile electric fence or New Zealand style fencing is also inexpensive and requires little maintenance.
- Are some sections of your pasture still soggy while others are already dry? Try fencing pastures according to how wet they are. That way, in the spring you can let horses onto the higher, dry areas first. Save the wet areas until later in the spring or summer when they dry out.
- Final details. Make sure that pasture areas are large enough for horses to run and that gates are placed so that horses can easily be led from stall to pasture and back. Remember to have a water source for each grazing area. You can have separate water sources for each grazing area or a single water source that is accessible from more than one area. Also try to divide pastures in such a way that horses can have access to shade or shelter especially if later in the summer they will be in these areas for more than a few hours.
About the Author
Alayne Renée Blickle, a life-long equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program. Well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches, Alayne is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners for over 15 years teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Alayne and her husband raise and train their reining horses at their ranch in sunny Nampa, Idaho.