Most horse owners—and especially property owners or barn managers—are intimately familiar with the land their horses graze upon. For the stable manager, it’s not just the health of the horses and the viability of their pastures that matter. The economics of client demands also factor in to how fields, pastures and turnout pens are used.
It can be tempting for barn managers to overload a pasture with a few too many horses because of the ease of caring for them. However, as a pasture becomes over-used and over-grazed, it becomes less productive, leading to increases in feed requirements and erosion.
You can avoid overgrazing through good management practices. Start by recognizing the problem. Wayne Burleson of Absarokee, Mont., travels around the country helping land owners set up proper land management practices; he defines overgrazing as “the biting off of fresh regrowth which is detrimental to root development.” In other words, eating the grass faster than it can re-grow and hindering future growth.
There is no one rule when it comes to how long a pasture will need to recuperate after being grazed upon, but Burleson says that the drier the climate in your area, the longer the recovery time. (Green tip: You can help your pastures along by distributing collected rainwater or grey water.) Also, check your local extension agent for information on local regulations. Some counties have rules such as “one horse per acre,” and they may have recommendations for length of recovery time for your particular native grass species.
For all barns, large and small, it is important that fields and pastures (defined as land spaces designed to hold horses and provide food at the same time) are regularly rotated, to cycle them through rest periods for field recuperation. A pasture that is grazed constantly will change over time to produce less and lower quality grass. As well, if only one species grazes in the pasture, gradually the fauna they do not consume (certain types of grass or weeds) will increase in population.
Pasture mismanagement is rarely intentional; it usually occurs one extra horse at a time. A field that once happily held two horses may be pushed to its limit with four, depending on factors such as:
- weather/seasonal changes such as an increase in precipitation.
- native grass and soil types that are more sparse, such as in some southwest states.
- increases in feed requirements for pregnant mares.
- changes in flora due to invasive weeds and/or soil erosion due to long-term neglect.
- You can tell that your pastures are overgrazed if you observe some of the following signs:
- bald patches or areas outside of natural travel paths that do not grow grass.
- horses stretching to eat grass on the other side of the fence.
- overall grass length under three inches.
Overgrazing explains why horses insist on eating the green grass on the other side of the fence. They would not choose to do this if their pasture was healthy enough to meet their needs.
Four Step Recovery Plan
If you have determined that your pastures are in need of better rotation, the implementation of a plan is just a few steps away.
First, map out your property as close to scale as possible. Mark the acreage of each field as well as the type of grass that is native and currently growing there.
Second, soil test. This will help you to determine if your pastures are able to support healthy grass. If the pH is too low, you may have a bit of work ahead of you. Adding lime (you will need to disc it into your soil) in the proper amount may help your pastures to support better forage grasses and legumes. Your local extension office will have resources available for this type of undertaking.
Third, list your horse groupings. By making your fields easy to label with familiar terminology (front pasture, back pasture, east field, etc.) you can also provide a map for your boarders so that they can easily locate their horses when they come to fetch them.
Fourth, create a chart for each field that enforces rest periods. At any time, at least one or two pastures should be resting.
What if you only have one or two pastures and a lot of horses? Divide them with temporary fencing, such as panels or electric fence. (Green tip: electric fences can easily be powered by solar energy, meaning no extra strain on your pocketbook.)
A very important aspect of field management is creating a sacrifice area for the days when you cannot turn horses out onto a pasture or when they need to be kept from the pasture. If you live in a region with high rainfall during certain periods of the spring, for example, it can be very detrimental to your fields to turn horses out where their hooves can damage young root systems.
On these days you should keep the horses in sacrifice areas, smaller fields that are sacrificed for the good of the larger fields. Often they are paddock-sized and may have footing added such as gravel, sand, hogfuel or cedar shavings. If you have pastures that are not for turnout, you might create a separate sacrifice area where you can enclose the horses during periods of heavy rainfall.
Managing Pastures in a Northern Climate
In Regina, Saskatchewan, where Clay and Jennifer Webster manage J. Drummond Farms, the weather (as in many northern regions) can be the major factor in how pastures are used.
The growing cycle for grass is shortened considerably, so the Websters employ a very specific routine. “Each spring [just prior to turning horses onto the pastures], we reseed our fields with a custom seed blend. Working with advice from professional agronomists, our blend consists of hardy grasses that bloom at various times of the year, like Kentucky blue, timothy, crested wheat, a tiny bit of alfalfa and brome grasses,” says Jennifer.
The Websters have five pastures they use in rotation, with a couple smaller ones bearing the brunt of the use as sacrifice areas. “Our fencing system was designed with a series of gates and waterers that allow us to close off some areas when Clay decides the grasses are getting too low,” says Jennifer.
In the fall again, the Websters mow their pastures and re-seed where required—just prior to the big freeze. The horses remain turned out for a little natural cultivation, allowing them to drive the seeds into the ground. This is different from their spring seeding, where the horses are kept off the land to allow the grass to establish roots.
Multi-Species Grazing & Weed Management
Many barn owners choose to allow different species to graze on pastures in the week following their horses, so that weeds or grasses that horses shun can be consumed and kept in check. A typical rule of thumb for all pasture is one animal unit (one cow or horse, six sheep or goats) per acre.
Dick and Brenda Pieper run a large horse ranch in Marietta, Oklahoma, and allow the cattle they keep for cutting to graze behind the horses for parasite management. Despite being a performance barn, nearly all horses are kept outside. The exceptions are young and aged event horses who need to be kept under lights for their haircoat. Even their stallions spend half their lives outside. “Horses are healthier, have fewer soundness issues or ulcers, and are happier when outside grazing like they were meant to,” says Brenda.
The Piepers’ pasture is mostly native bermuda, and they maintain them year round through weed management, soil testing and fertilizing. Their horses are grouped by type and placed on fields as each particular field can handle, not always at capacity, and about half of their fields are in recovery (standing empty) throughout the year.
As mentioned previously, your local extension office can offer advice on capacity. It may have courses specifically related to your region. The Piepers previously worked with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation (www.noble.org) through the agricultural division. “They work with owners to do soil samples and manage the grass strains in our area, provide fertilizer recommendations,” says Brenda.
Pasture and field management may seem like a large task to undertake if you have never done it before. However, once your procedures are implemented, they simply become habit. And habits like these result in much healthier pastures and happier horses.
Author Heather Cook (“The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders”), from Calgary, Alberta,can be reached at www.heather-cook.com.