Keep Pastures Healthy With Rotational Grazing

Rotational grazing, called planned grazing by some, refers to dividing pasture into smaller areas and grazing horses section by section. Rotational grazing is a recommended pasture management “Best Management Practice” (or BMP) to increase pasture productivity and prevent overgrazing and soil compaction. A pasture grass plant needs at least three inches of green leafy material for rapid regrowth. Healthy grass plants are important not only for a productive pasture but for the biofiltration of nutrients from manure and urine as well as sediments and chemicals. Compaction of the soil makes water infiltration and root growth difficult. Poor pasture management practices result in reduced quality and quantity of grass, increased soil erosion, nitrogen runoff (from manure and urine) and weeds. It also increases feed costs because of the reduced pasture productivity and potentially increased vet bills if your horse eats toxic weeds.

By dividing a pasture area into smaller portions and rotating horses through each section, you can encourage horses to graze more evenly while keeping pasture grass from becoming overgrazed. This technique guarantees fresh grass for your horses for a longer period of time during the growing season.

Here are the steps to take:

The golden rule of grazing.

Never allow grass to be grazed shorter than three inches. This ensures that the grass will have enough reserves after grazing to permit rapid re-growth. The bottom three inches of the grass plant is like an energy collector that needs to be left for the plant. Once horses have grazed the majority of the grass in a pasture down to three or four inches, rotate them on to the next grazing area. Return horses back to an area once grass has re-grown to at least six to eight inches. Healthy horse note: The bottom three inches of grass contains the most amounts of sugars in the form of non structural carbohydrates (see Spring Grass Safety for more information on NSCs). Keeping horses off grass three inches or less ensures that your horse is consuming more roughage and less sugars — a much healthier food choice for your horse.

Types of fencing for rotational grazing.

Use permanent fencing for the property perimeter to insure that an accidental loose horse is safely contained on your property. When using a rotational grazing system, it’s usually easiest to separate grazing areas with temporary electric fencing. You may want to first try dividing an existing large pasture in half and alternate grazing between the two halves. After you’ve gained some experience with rotational grazing, try further subdividing. Portable electric fencing is lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to move for pasture rotation. High tensile electric fence, or New Zealand-style fencing, is another inexpensive choice that requires little maintenance.

Final details.

Consider placing gates so horses can easily be led (or turned out) from stall to pasture and back. Have a water source for each grazing area which can have separate water sources for each grazing area or a single water source that is accessible from more than one area. You may want to divide pastures in such a way that horses have access to shade or shelter especially if during the heat of the summer when they will be in these areas for more than a few hours.

Let me know how your rotational system is going and happy grazing!