Improving Horse Pastures Through Rotational Grazing

Credit: Thinkstock Rotational grazing can benefit your horses and your pastures, but you must manage the rotation to make it work.

Editor’s note: This month we are going to look at ways to improve the pastures on your horse farm or ranch. Watch for an article each week on this topic.

Dr. Bob Coleman, State Extension Specialist at University of Kentucky, advises horse owners to rotationally graze pastures to get the most good from them while at the same time providing rest and recovery for the most heavily grazed plants.This is healthier for the pasture and also provides more feed for the horses because the grazed plants get a chance to regrow.A pasture can be divided into 2, 3 or 4 segments to allow enough time for the rested paddocks to grow back to grazing height.

“It can be difficult to determine how big those paddocks need to be because it depends on your climate, rainfall (or irrigation), the grasses in the pasture, etc.If you graze the whole pasture continuously, horses will eat their favorite plants into the ground and leave the less-desirable plants untouched.You might think the horses and the pasture are doing fine because there’s still a lot of grass here and there, or maybe a lot of grass in one back corner.But maybe they never go to that back corner,” he said.

“For instance on one horse farm I looked at, the greatest density of grass was in a lower area of the pasture where it got more moisture, but also didn’t get much breeze.The horses preferred the higher ground where it was cooler and the breeze reduced the amount of flies they had to deal with.There was no way to make the horses graze that lower corner without a fence to keep them there.If there’s a preferred species of grass on that higher ground, the horses graze it hard.The advantage of rotational grazing is that it gives those hard-hit plants a chance to recover.It doesn’t stop the selective grazing, but you can control it,” said Coleman.

“We did a study with 2.5 acres of ground and two horses.I divided it into 3 paddocks and grazed them rotationally, starting the horses in the first one when the grass was 8 inches tall.I moved them when on average the grass was grazed down to 3 inches.There were parts of the pasture that had grass 6 inches high, but because the horses were becoming fairly hard on the areas they liked, it was time to move them,” he said.

“I moved the horses to a fresh pasture, then mowed the grazed segment to get all the grass back to an even height (so the taller grasses wouldn’t get too coarse and mature before the horses came back again).We had a nice summer that year with good rain and good temperature (and we’d fertilized it the fall before), so the rotations worked very well.’d take the horses off at 3 to 4 inches and put them back on when it reached 7 to 8 inches, and rotated them every 2 weeks—so each paddock had a 4-week rest to regrow.At the end of the season I had 5 or 6 inches of grass left on the majority of the pasture,” Coleman said.

The next year was more challenging because growing conditions were not as good.“I had to wait for the rain and for grass to grow back.You have to be flexible and know something about the growing conditions in your area or get advice from your local Extension office.You can show them your pasture (and they can help you evaluate the soil and plants) and ask what kind of growth to expect, and what kinds of things you need to be careful about regarding plant management.You have to pay attention and move the horses at the proper time,” he said.

If you have horses that tend to overeat on pasture, you might let them out for a certain number of hours, or bring them in at night and feed them something else.This rests the pasture a little and extends it a bit father.“The pasture doesn’t have to provide all of the horse’s nutritional needs and you can make it last longer.It will go backward if it’s overgrazed.And in conditions where it’s hard to get grass to grow, the weeds keep going.Weeds are hardy and opportunistic.If we remove too much grass, taking away the competition from the grass, the weeds really take over,” said Coleman.

“You need to monitor the pasture—daily if possible—to see if the horses are overgrazing part of it.You need to know when to move the horses, and it’s better to move them a day early than a day too late, because it takes longer for the overgrazed grass to catch up.The more leaf you can leave, the faster it will regrow.”

You can use temporary fences to create paddocks, and reconfigure them at any time.“You can set it up the first year and monitor the grass and plant communities and see how things are going.In the fall or winter when the pasture goes dormant–when grazing won’t abuse the grass–you can remove the electric fencing if you wish and let the horses have the whole pasture.When you configure your paddocks for the next grazing season you can make any changes you think might be helpful.If they spent too much time in one area, you could fence it in such a way that you could rest that portion even longer,” said Coleman.

“You can move electric fence very easily.Some people move it during the grazing season, but if you don’t want that task you can set it all up at the beginning with various paddocks.Then all you have to do is open the gate into the next one.The horses soon figure out the routine.When they see you move the salt block and the waterer, they come to the gate and wait for you to let them through.”

You’ll need some kind of temporary or portable watering system and may need to be creative.“In some situations you can simply run a hose from a hydrant and hook the waterer to that hose.If you are rinsing and dumping a water trough periodically, however, it will create mud and soft ground that will be vulnerable to hoof damage, so it helps if you can move the waterer around—unless you put in traffic pads for the waterer to sit on.”

For horse owners on small acreages, rotational grazing with temporary fencing can keep pastures from turning into a drylot or weed patch.“But you can’t just put up the cross-fences and forget about them.You need to walk the pastures on a regular basis (at least every other day), to check on the pasture (to know how soon you might need to move the horses) and to make sure the electric fences are working,” said Coleman.






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