by Jesse Bussard
Many of our country’s horse pastures are in bad shape. Why you might ask? Well, this is due to many factors. Horses by nature tend to be the hardest type of animal to keep on pasture. While overgrazing is part of the culprit, the reality is that the many pastures are simply overstocked.
The grazing behavior of equines is an important factor that contributes to overgrazing. Horses’ biting style involves biting plants close to the ground causing severe issues for plant regrowth.
Other problems such as the habit of horses grouping together in certain areas can lead to soil compaction and stomping out forage in this area. This leads to increased soil erosion and weeds.
Another behavior trait of horses, selective grazing, is attributed to palatability of different forages and the different stages of maturity of those forages. If left continuously on pastures this behavior creates “lawns and ruffs” which appears as areas with short, new growth that are constantly overgrazed and other areas where forage is past the point of optimum maturity and palatability.
This selective behavior causes spot grazing which in time reduces the amount of forage horses consume and the quality of that forage. Areas that are overgrazed become encroached with weeds over time. This in time can lead to a perfectly good pasture transforming into a weed patch or dry lot. To overcome these issues proper grazing management such as rotational grazing is highly recommended for horse owners.
Rotational grazing is a form of controlled grazing. This type of grazing management can be beneficial for horse farms, especially on small acreages.
Rotational grazing requires more than one pasture or subdividing larger pastures into two or more grazing cells. This can easily be done using temporary fencing.
Time allowed for grazing each cell will vary from a few days to several weeks. This is all dependent on stocking rate (number of animals per acre) and the rate of forage growth. While the smaller paddock size leads to higher stocking rates, the rest periods provided from moving horses from one cell to the next helps to extend the forage growing season. Additionally, spot grazing is reduced as horses do not spend extended periods grazing the same areas.
For rotational grazing system, pastures should be grazed only to a minimum height of 4-6 inches for warm season grasses and 2-4 inches for cool season grasses. By leaving plant material after each grazing period, plants are able to adequately photosynthesize nutrients to regrow (i.e. Grass grows grass!).
Fencing, water systems, and paddock sizes will vary by amount of available acreage and number of animals grazing. As with any management recommendation, rotational grazing will not work for every farm or every horse owner. Rotational grazing requires more intensive management as animals may need to be moved more or less frequently dependent on plant growth rate.
Horse owners interested in learning more about rotational grazing or other controlled grazing methods should contact their local cooperative extension or conservation offi ce. Many useful grazing manuals and extension publications are available free of charge to those interested.
Also, on occasion events called grazing schools are offered for producers. These provide the best opportunity to learn as individuals are able to get hands on experience with grazing management practices.