When you look at your pasture what do you see? Some people look at pastures as a place to turn their horse out for exercise while others realize a pasture can be an important part of their total feeding program. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as watching the grass grow and turning your horse out in the field. Proper pasture management has many components spread across all four seasons.
Importance Of Pasture
A well kept pasture can provide the most natural and healthy environment for exercise and rest for your horse. A good pasture alone is sufficient to meet all of the nutritional requirements for most horses. Providing a horse with good quality pasture is one of the most inexpensive ways to feed a horse. Ideally a horse should consume a minimum of 1% of their body weight in hay or pasture each day.
Horses are designed to be roaming herbivores. During their evolution horses roamed as they pleased, spending the majority of their day grazing along the way. The reality for most horses today is dramatically different with the majority of horses being stabled and expected to perform as athletes for us. However, their digestive systems are still designed to eat grasses and be on the move. Therefore an adequate size healthy pasture is important in maintaining healthy gastrointestinal function in horses.
Not only does pasture help meet your horse’s nutritional needs but it also helps to meet their emotional and physical needs. Pasture time gives horses an opportunity to socialize with other members of their “herd” and exercise, both of which are important for their health and well-being.
Characteristics Of A Good Pasture
Regardless of where your barn is located, there are characteristics associated with a good pasture. The number one characteristic is having a safe area to turn your horse out in. It is important to make sure that not only is your pasture properly fenced, but that it is free of poisonous plants and hazardous objects such as rocks, wire, garbage and stumps. The pasture should also be large enough to provide nutritious and palatable forage, but at the same time manageable. Horse owners typically look at a large pasture and place too many horses in the area. Do not overload your pasture. Over grazing can result in reduced grass stand and increase weeds that reduce yield and quality of the forage. In addition some weeds can be toxic.
Ideally horses should have access to ample shade in the summer and shelter in times of inclement weather. Water troughs should be available in more than one location in the pasture. When dealing with shade, shelter and water, the more options available the better. If a field only has one water trough, it is guaranteed that the surrounding area will be a muddy mess simply because the trough will be a high traffic area.
A well drained area is essential to a healthy horse pasture. You can make adjustments for drainage, either by moving dirt around or “tiling” which involves underground drainage.
Test Before You Plant
Soil is the foundation of a good forage program. It is essential to know what nutrient levels are present in your soil. If a nutrient is deficient in the soil then plants growing on that soil will also be deficient for that nutrient. The better the soil, the greater the potential for both quantity and quality of forage in the pasture.
Regardless of whether you are establishing a new pasture or rejuvenating an existing area soil testing is the first step. Work with your local Southern States store to assist in conducting a soil sample. Soil tests should be conducted at least every three years to determine your pasture’s needs.
When testing your soil it is important to get a representative sample of your entire pasture area. Soil test results will determine the pH (acidity) and nutrient levels of your soil. The report will also provide you with recommendations for lime and fertilizer application. Different plants thrive on different pH levels, so this report will help you determine what changes need to be made according to your planting preference.
The Right Seed For Your Need
There is no forage that is perfect for all situations. Pick the proper plant for your pasture conditions and feeding goals of the pasture for your horses. Keep in mind, different plants will thrive in your pasture depending on where you are located and your soil preferences.
Horse pastures should have a mix of grasses and legumes that provide pasture needs throughout the growing season. By having a variety of plants, your growing season will be extended as each species has its optimum production period. In most cases grasses grow during the beginning and end of the growing season while legumes such as clover and alfalfa flourish in the warm midsummer months.
I Have Grass Now What?
Once your seeds have finally started to sprout it’s time to turn your horses out to graze, right? No! Although it can be tempting to turn your horses out once the green grass starts growing be patient. One of the biggest mistakes horse owners make is to turn their horses out on the grass before root systems are mature.
The general rule of thumb is to allow six to eight inches of growth prior to allowing a horse to graze on the new grass. If grazed too early, plants may die and be replaced by unwanted weeds or less desirable species. Immature roots cannot handle the stresses of grazing and trampling caused by horses on turnout.
When it is not possible to keep horses off the field for pasture use consider using temporary fence, such as EquiTape to divide the pasture into two separate areas. One area will be available for grazing while the other is left to establish mature roots.
Rest And Rotation
Like the horses that graze on the pasture, pastures need rest too! Resting pastures allows plants to replenish food reserves. Without a break from the stresses from hooves and teeth, forages will not be able to reestablish new growth. This will have a negative impact down the line as overstressed plants can have a poor response to water and fertilization.
Recovery time for pastures can range from 10 to 60 days depending on the season. In the spring when cold season grasses are prospering the rest period will be shorter. However during the warmer months when plant growth is slow, rest periods will be between 30 to 60 days.
In a perfect world, you would have several fields available at your disposal to graze amongst. By implementing rotational grazing you split a large pasture into several smaller fenced paddocks. Once your horses eat half of the grass that had grown prior to grazing you can rest the grass and allow the plants to regrow. Rotation helps prevent overgrazing of pastures. Once you remove horses from the pasture mow the area to clip to a uniform 4 to 6 inches. Mowing prior to seed heads emerging will encourage the plants to produce higher leafy vegetation.
Portable electric fence tape works perfectly in a rotation system as it give you an inexpensive way to create temporary paddocks in a larger pasture. When it is time to rotate the horses, you can simply move the fencing to the next area.
Limit Your Grazing
As farm land continues to be developed horse owners have to do more with less land. Gone are the days of hundred acre farms. The rule of thumb has been one horse to every two to three acres, however if you don’t have the luxury of that much land you can still have a healthy pasture.
Through a limited grazing program and rotation, your pasture can still thrive. This way you can divide up the total number of horses on the pasture at any given time and avoid overstocking your pastures. Regardless of the amount of land you have the “rules” remain the same, “eat half, keep half”.
Create A Sacrifice Lot
One of the best ways to protect your pastures from extra wear and tear is to create a sacrifice lot. A small enclosure such as a corral, pen or bluestone paddock can all serve as a sacrifice lot. Sacrifice lots give horse owners more flexibility in turnout and pasture management.
Sacrifice lots are ideal if you have a horse that requires turnout rain or shine. Regardless of muddy conditions, you don’t have to worry about plant destruction with a sacrifice lot. They can also be used if your pasture needs a rest or you have a horse that needs a controlled grazing environment due to health or nutrition issues.
One of the main causes of uneven pasture growth and grazing is manure piles. Horses will not graze in areas where manure is present. One way to combat this problem is to drag or harrow your pastures to break up and spread manure piles. Dragging can be done with a chain harrow, spike harrow or even a homemade design. If you have a smaller pasture area picking the field can accomplish the same goal.
By dragging not only does manure get spread evenly over the entire grazing area, recycling nutrients into the soil, but it also encourages uniform grazing. During dry weather dragging helps to dry out parasite eggs more quickly than if they were left in manure piles. However, if you drag during wet or moist times, parasite eggs are more likely to hatch and thrive. When dragging during moist times try to keep horses off of the pasture for several weeks to allow the manure and eggs to dry out.
As the majority of parasites that horses encounter come from their pastures, a proper pasture management program essential. Work with your veterinarian to establish and follow a regular deworming program for your horse(s).
A Yearlong Effort
Although pasture management comes to the forefront in the Spring, proper management practices must occur throughout the year. From seeding to grazing to manure management it’s not something that can be done once and then forgotten about. Remember if you take good care of your pastures, your pastures will take good care of your horse(s).