Improving Horse Pastures: Pay Attention to Stocking Rate

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Credit: Thinkstock You need to keep your pastures from being overstocked, and therefore overgrazed.

Credit: Thinkstock You need to keep your pastures from being overstocked, and therefore overgrazed.

Horse pastures are often overstocked (too many grazing animals for the amount of forage growth), which can lead to overgrazing and killing out the best forage plants.Dr. Bob Coleman, State Extension Specialist at the University of Kentucky, said cattle producers generally monitor stocking rates (looking at how many acres of ground they have, how much grass they produce, and how many cattle those acres can support), but horse owners may not think about this aspect of their pastures.

“A horse owner might have 10 acres and 5 horses and think that would be enough area.Many Extension publications give a guideline of 2 to 4 acres per horse—which is variable depending on climate, forage species, whether the pasture has a lot of weeds or bare ground, and how the pasture is managed.Another factor is that often only a portion of that 10 acres of land is actually in pasture.Your house, driveway, lawn, barn, arena/pens, trees, swimming pool, etc. takes up some of that space and maybe the pasture is only 7 acres.You still have the 5 horses, but that changes the dynamic of stocking rate,” said Coleman.

“We have to think about how many acres per horse we really have--that can actually be used for grazing and exercise.Often we could probably do a better job of using our grass if we divide the pasture into several segments to rotationally graze.When the horses graze down one paddock, we can move them to the next and give the first one a chance to regrow,” he said.

Stocking rate can always be enhanced by managing pastures and not letting horses eat some areas into the ground while leaving other areas ungrazed.“You start out with a certain stocking rate, but can change it with rotational grazing.You have 5 horses, but instead of being on 10 acres, they might be on one acre.The stocking density is much higher (for a shorter time) and with good management it gives you the opportunity to encourage the horses to eat more of the available forage (grazing on all of the grass instead of just their favorite plants), then move them.”

Total forage production is enhanced by more intensive grazing and then giving that smaller area enough rest for good regrowth, facilitating more total production over the summer.Thus your stocking rate for x number of acres may actually increase; the pasture area can carry more animals without damage to the pasture.