Reports from the National Climatic Data Center and the US Drought Monitor estimated that by spring 2015, nearly 37% of the contiguous United States was experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, particularly in the western third of the United States. Since the beginning of May, a very wet month dropped these drought estimates to 25% although some areas, California for example, continue to reel from the effects of an on-going and severe deficit of water. With over 75% less than normal precipitation for several years, areas such as California are faced with extreme conditions.
What does this mean for you as a horse owner? If you rely on pasture sources as the primary summer and autumn feed for your horses, then you will find challenges in this strategy. You may be looking out over your fields at this very moment, trying to remember what a green, lush pasture may have looked like. As the grasses are stressed by the lack of moisture, weakening of the leaves further stresses the root structure, which then reduces the plants’ ability for regrowth. The end result of a persistent drought is depletion of pasture grass, invasion by weeds, as well as an increase in dust or mud along with soil erosion from the elements.
In general, pasture plants thrive best on 2–2½ feet of water per year, with plants consuming a half-inch of water every day in hot weather. If you live in areas with clay-rich soil, water is held better in that material than in coarser soils such as sandy loam. Once the soil begins to dry out, water needs to be replenished through rain or irrigation methods.
So, you will need to tend to your pasture as best as possible or else you’ll need to rely on alternative food sources for your horses, which we will discuss in another segment. For help with maximizing production in your pasture, contact your County Extension agent for advice.
Also keep in mind that if you purchase hay in or from these regions, you might want to look for alternate sources.