There’s nothing like an expanse of thick green grass for providing horses with the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients nature intended for them. Horses naturally crave it but many equine professionals, unfortunately, can only dream about it. Even the largest pastures are often thin and can be overgrazed. But regardless of the space available—whether a postage stamp or The Ponderosa—your pasture can be managed to create thick, verdant forage so horses can get fresh greens throughout the growing season.
With some careful planning and management, horses can be rotated on available sections of pasture to take advantage of nutritious vegetation while other sections are allowed to grow to maturity. By moving the horses between two or three different sections of pasture, grazing can occur without ever killing off any grass. And while there may be some initial outlay in fencing equipment and spending on seed and fertilizer, successfully growing forage has the potential to cut down on other costs, such as feed supplements.
Whys and Wherefores
The average horse needs one to two acres of good pasture for grazing and consumes between 1 and 2 percent of his body weight in grass per day. One well-managed acre can produce 6,000 pounds of forage a year. But when pasture is neglected, it can take 12 to 15 acres to produce that same 6,000 pounds.
One of the reasons for that is the tendency for horses to be very selective in what types of grasses they eat and their ability to crop it right down to the ground. In turn, that means certain areas of a pasture can be overgrazed while other parts grow long.
To avoid overgrazing by horses, it’s important to divide available pasture into sections so that a grazed area can be treated and allowed to recover while horses graze on another. In some cases it might make sense to reserve exercise runs and maintain them as bare ground. Some people term this the “sacrifice” area because it is designated as a permanent or temporary non-grazing area used to keep horses away from growing grass until it is ready for grazing.
Planning for Preservation
But before setting aside a sacrifice area and putting up fence to cut a pasture in two or more sections, there are a few considerations that should be explored. To begin with, the lay of the land in relation to the barn, drainage questions and the pasture’s soil type should be examined.
This winter, start planning for the grazing season by analyzing how much space is available for turnout and pasture and where is it located. Alayne Blickle, program director of Horses for Clean Water, points out, for example, that if paddocks are adjacent to the barn or there are runs attached to the barn, “then the paddocks should slope away from the barn,” she says. “And a slight slope is good for drainage.” Blickle’s organization, based in King County, Washington, promotes environmentally sensitive horsekeeping and she thinks sacrificing an area to remain bare ground while others are planted with grass is a good idea.
It is then important to control manure and urine in paddocks, both for horse health and to prevent runoff into water sources. “Regular removal of manure also greatly reduces the amount of mud that develops,” says Blickle. “And it will prevent contaminated runoffs from reaching surface water in your area.” Summer dust will also be reduced, Blickle notes, adding that paddocks should be bordered with vegetation that will act as a “natural filtration system” to buffer runoff.
“Make the border 25 feet wide,” she says. “It should be well-vegetated. The best thing is to use native plants that grow well in the area. In addition, existing pasture, lawn or trees will aid in using up the surface runoff . . . reducing pollution.”
When choosing pasture on which to begin a rotational grazing practice, determine the soil condition of the location. “If you have a variety of soil types,” says Blickle, “the organics are best for pasture and well-drained types better for paddocks.” And once you’ve determined where the best growing areas are, it might be wise to send a soil sample to your local extension agent or a seed company to determine what types of forage will thrive on your pasture and what minerals might help aid growth.
Seed, Divide and Rotate
With sufficient moisture, you can seed cool-season grasses in fall or winter with a target grazing period to begin in spring. Aside from climate questions, weather, patience and fencing off grazing areas are the crucial factors that come into play when cultivating productive pasture.
According to Dave Robison, a forage and turf agronomist with Ampac Seed Company, “Plant orchard grass in the fall and keep your animals off it to let it grow. Then fence half of it and let the animals in.” He recommended Tekapo orchard grass, saying that it would be able to handle grazing in the early spring about 10 weeks after fall planting. It was bred for close grazing and requires a good seedbed. “Disc the area first,” says Robison, “and be picky about the soil-to-seed contact.”
If you are starting this winter, annual ryegrass can be “frost-seeded” or cast directly onto snow or frozen ground in late February or early March. Once the ground starts to thaw, the cold and wet conditions of early spring will help germinate the seed. Annual ryegrass works best in areas where there’s not too much in the way of sand or dry conditions.
Most grasses are ready for grazing once they’ve grown to six to eight inches in height. To divide the pasture for rotating, Robison suggests fencing to separate the field into halves or “have one-third that you reseed and two-thirds you let horses on.” Portable fencing helps you reserve grazing areas. You can easily set up and move steel pipe panels, which connect with clamps, or use electric fence when adult horses trained to electric fence are involved. In such cases, often a single strand of wide electric tape supported by PVC posts or T-posts covered with plastic caps is enough to partition a field.
For best results, never allow horses to overgraze your grass. That means moving them off the pasture before grass height is reduced to two inches. With small pastures, that can happen after only a week or a few days, so in some cases it might be necessary to divide pasture into several grazing lots. By rotating the sacrifice area and sowing seed three to four times annually, it’s possible to maintain forage continually.
“Sow a heavy rate of annual ryegrass,” suggests Robison. “When you reseed it, with plenty of moisture, four to six weeks later you can turn horses out. Then take your other half of the field and seed it with annual ryegrass.”
“But you must have patience,” cautions Robison. “Fencing sections off, to give it recovery time, is vital.”
Maintain the Turf
Pastures will be most productive if they receive the proper care. The soil test will reveal the pasture’s pH, phosphorus and potassium levels to help determine at what rate fertilizer and other minerals should be applied. For most areas of the country, fertilizer should be applied three times a year. In some cases, an application of fertilizer in December is the best treatment for overgrazed areas as it promotes tillering, which is the growth of new grass shoots from existing roots.
And, if certain plants go uneaten or if pasture grasses become too long before horses are turned out to graze on them, mowing the forage will keep plants tender. Mowing is also an excellent means to control weed plants as long as they are cut before they’ve had a chance to go to seed. It will also help desired forage maintain a healthy advantage in the pasture.
Through careful pasture management and rotating the areas used for grazing, you’ll be able to maintain both healthy forage and healthy horses. [sm]
Creating the Sacrifice Area
Once you’ve determined what will be pasture and what will be set aside as exercise lots, you can create stall runs as small as 16 by 16 pens. Even a 20-foot by 60-foot pen allows the horse room to run and play.
It’s a good idea to treat the soil in paddocks to help drainage and cut down on winter mud and summer dust. There are a number of water-absorbing products on the market to help condition the ground.
Stable Blend is manufactured of pellets of compressed pine. “It has under 10-percent moisture content,” says the company’s Dixie Eppink. “It can be used in paddocks, especially in areas used for urinating.”
Another soil conditioning product, Dry Stall, is a natural volcanic material. According to company representative Kimberlie Teel, “Its porosity gives it the ability to act like a sponge to get rid of the mud.”
In Washington state, hogfuel or wood chips that are the byproduct of lumber mills are often used. According to Alayne Blickle, program director of Horses for Clean Water, soil type affects how quickly wood products decompose. “It can decompose quickly in organic soil,” she says. “If your paddock is shaped like a bowl, soil will hold water and hogfuel will decompose more quickly. On the positive side, it is organic, absorbs urine and has good environmental control.”
All of these products are added as needed after decomposing organic material is removed. —CS