Whether you are designing a new facility or updating an existing one, planning your pastures is one of the most important tasks you will do. A well designed and managed pasture can extend the grazing season, decrease feed costs, increase pasture life and distribute manure more evenly. Fencing can also be a very attractive feature and can increase property value.
At its most basic, a fence is meant to keep horses in and keep others out. It aids in management by controlling grazing and segregating animals. And since fencing is a considerable capital expense, it is wise to lay out the plan very carefully before digging the first post hole because once you put in a fence, you will likely not move it.
First, consider how much land you have for pasture and how many horses will be grazing on it. Next, decide on the main purpose of your pasture. Is it a major feed source, or is it an exercise area? To maintain a healthy pasture year round, you need two to three acres per horse. That size will allow you to have two one-acre pastures that can be used to rotationally graze two adult horses. If you have less land than that (or more horses), the field is considered an exercise area.
Once you know how much land and how many horses, what are your next steps? The British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries recommends considering the following:
• vegetation types that are already established, such as grass, shrubs and trees
• river/stream bank areas and natural water features
• overall size of pasture area
Once that is determined, they suggest deciding on:
• the size and number of paddocks needed to meet management objectives
• whether temporary or permanent fence will be used
• watering source
• protection of sensitive areas, such as vegetation along stream banks, natural water sources and treed areas.
If you are establishing new pastures, start your design plan by examining a land capability map, aerial photos and topographical map. Make sure you are aware of your property lines and any fencing laws for your area. It is best to work out any issues with neighbors before getting started.
Many extension specialists advise paying special attention to the topography of the land, as it will influence the look and installation of the fence. Level or gently sloping pastures generally don’t have any issues, but fields that have both hilly and level areas will cause uneven grazing.
Krishona Martinson, equine extension specialist at the University of Minnesota, recommends that fences should not be oriented up and down hillsides. Typically, animals prefer the easiest access to forage, thus they often congregate on the flattest land. Attracting them uphill may require a water source or salt block. If hilly areas are unavoidable, the fence location needs to ensure that animals are not trapped at the bottom of steep slopes. Try to allow some level terrain at the bottom.
You probably haven’t given any thought to how vegetation grows on hilly terrain, but the Virginia Cooperative Extension certainly has. Southeast-facing slopes warm up sooner and have more growth early in the year compared to other slopes. North-facing slopes have better production in mid-summer when the sun is higher in the sky with longer daylight hours. In contrast, the southwest slopes may show drought symptoms in the summer months.
THE ACTUAL FENCE
While the focus of this article is not on fencing materials, they are an important consideration. There is a wide variety of permanent fencing available, but make sure it is appropriate for horses. Barbed wire, and high tensile wire that is not electrified, are not safe fencing for horses.
Eileen Wheeler at Penn State University advises the use of fencing material that is highly visible to horses. It should be secure enough to contain a horse that runs into it without injuring the horse or damaging the fence. The overall height should be 54 to 60 inches above ground level. If possible, curve the corners of the fields, to keep horses from getting trapped in them.
Consider building a sacrifice area near the barn that is 600 to 1,000 square feet per horse. This can be used when the pastures are too wet or need to be rested to avoid overgrazing.
The fields themselves should be square or rectangular because narrow or oddly shaped pastures aren’t uniformly grazed. Large rectangular fields encourage exercise. Horses also need access to shade, but it is best to fence off trees to prevent horses from chewing on them.
Martinson suggests keeping horses out of rivers, creeks, swamps and wetlands. Typically these areas have a higher population of biting insects and poisonous plants. In addition, the water could be contaminated with bacteria and chemicals from runoff.
Assuming you heed that advice, you will need an artificial water source. When planning its location, keep in mind where filling and cleaning is convenient, but try to keep the travel distance to the water less than 1,300 feet. Since it (along with gates) will be such a high traffic area, it will tend to get muddy. Locating the water source on higher ground will help with drainage, but you also might want to consider adding stone dust to the area to help control mud.
When it comes to gates, first keep in mind that they should be easy to open and close with one hand. (See the article, “By Design,” for more on gates.) Seriously, how many times do you go through a gate with both hands free?
The location of the gates depends on how you move the horses. If they are typically led one at a time, place the gates in the middle of the fence row to keep a horse from getting trapped. Locate gates in the corners when horses are herded to drive them along the fence line. As stated before, avoid placing them in low areas, as water will pool there.
Horses do need some type of shade or shelter. If you add a run-in shed, placing the opening in line with the pasture fence keeps the rest of the shed out of reach of horses’ teeth. If you are adding one inside the field, place it on higher ground so that water runoff doesn’t settle there. The opening should face to the south or southeast, and the back should be far enough away from the fence to not trap any horses.
If you are fencing paddocks one right next to the other, consider the aisleways between them. A width of 10 to 12 feet is wide enough if you only need to get animals and a mower through. Larger equipment, such as hay equipment, will need 14 to 16 feet.
Animals tend to overgraze and undergraze different areas if on the same pasture all the time. If that’s the case, you may want to consider controlled grazing, which allows animals to intensely graze one field and then move them to another to allow the field to rest. The amount of time animals graze on a particular area is based on forage growth rather than a specific time schedule. It could be anywhere from one day to two weeks. Then, the amount the rest of the field needs will depend on weather conditions. It could be as short as 10 days during a wet spring or up to 60 days during a dry, hot summer.
If land is not an issue, you can fence several smaller pastures or paddocks to handle the controlled grazing. But if you do not have much land, or one large field, don’t despair. You can still take advantage of this type of grazing by sub-dividing a permanently fenced pasture with temporary fencing such as electric polytape.
Careful planning is required when you look to design and install new fence or re-work existing pastures. Your local extension agent can examine your land and resources to help you develop the best pasture layout for your particular situation.