Proper management of pastures on small acreage can mean better grazing for your horses and reduced hay costs.
While many of us are in the depths of winter still, it’s important to begin planning for our horses’ forage needs once the pastures begin to get green. Many horse owners try to keep their horses on pasture, but it can be a challenge to maintain healthy pastures that provide high-quality forage. Horses tend to overuse certain parts of pastures, literally eating favorite areas into the ground and opening the way for encroachment by opportunistic weeds. Horse owners need a plan, and they must understand that in addition to managing the horses, they should also maintain the forage.
As stated by Bob Coleman, MS, PhD, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences and extension horse specialist, “Even if you only have two to five acres, the grass is a crop, and certain practices must be followed in order to enhance that crop.”
How to Start
Coleman recommends working with your county extension agent to test your soils and interpret those tests to determine what type of fertilizer program would be best for your pasture. Also look at the kinds of plants growing on that land and consider what can be grown in your region, if you decide to renovate and reseed. Weed control is also important, since weeds can take over a pasture very quickly.
Bob Mowrey, MS, PhD, professor emeritus and Extension horse commodity coordinator at North Carolina State University, says it then boils down to pasture size and number of horses. “Everything on your place has pasture potential, at least for part of the year,” says Mowrey.
Some forage species can withstand overgrazing better than others. “Fescues and Bermuda grass can withstand close, heavy grazing, whereas a cool-season grass like orchard grass cannot. Growth reserves are crucial, to maintain perennial forage stands,” explains Mowrey.
Coleman has been working on a project that involves grazing two horses on 2.5 acres. “We started with a nice renovated pasture, doing everything to maximize the grass crop before we put the horses in,” he explains. “We got rid of all broadleaf weeds, no-tilled in some additional grass, and fertilized at the appropriate time for our area (right after Thanksgiving). The horses weren’t put in until the next May, so it had time to recover and become a nice pasture.” He cross-fenced it with electric tapes to rotate the paddocks.
“That was five years ago and the pasture is doing okay, but there’s been some weed encroachment,” he says. “Horses overgraze certain areas in spite of rotational rest periods, and if a person isn’t careful, weeds get a foothold in the slightly overgrazed areas.”
Horses prefer some grasses over others, and there are also certain areas of a pasture where they prefer to be because of breeze, shade, social factors (such as wanting to be closer to neighbors’ horses), etc. Anyplace the horses graze repeatedly the grass competition is reduced and weeds take advantage.
“One way to preserve pasture potential and get maximum nutrient intake from it is to have a drylot or sacrifice area where horses are confined part of the time,” says Mowrey. This gives grass a chance to recover from stress–whether it’s from drought, excessive rain (when horses might churn the sod into mud), overgrazing, or a need for normal regrowth time. A rest period is always necessary to provide more forage and nutrients down the road. If horses overgraze, the plants won’t regrow later.
The easiest (but least effective) pasture management option is continuous grazing. The horses are turned out on the whole area whenever they are not confined to a stall, eating their favorite areas into the ground and leaving other plants to become tall and coarse. “You lose a portion of the pasture and soon the roughs (where they don’t like to graze) get bigger and the ‘lawns’ (where they like to graze) get smaller,” says Mowrey.
Another option is rotational grazing, which involves dividing the pasture into paddocks and rotating the horses through these, giving each segment time to regrow. In the South it takes 21 or more days to get regrowth in the pasture segment.
One more option is controlled intensive grazing. The idea behind this is to use a small piece very intensively, allowing the horses to eat everything in it during a short time so there are no plants that become tall, then moving the pastured animals on before any plants are seriously overgrazed. Called flash grazing or mob grazing, this works well with a large number of animals in a small paddock for one day, moving them daily to a new piece of ground. It also works with one or several horses in a very small area.
“This forces the animals to graze everything, then you move the electric fence and give them another small area,” says Mowrey. It’s best to move them often, such as every three or four days, but this isn’t feasible for most horse owners who work away from home. It’s easier to do it on weekends. Using slightly larger paddocks and moving the horses every seven days can still control spot grazing and make sure all forage is consumed before moving them to a new area. When the grass grows back after this “flash” grazing period, it comes back very quickly.
With this method in a region that gets abundant rainfall, you might find you don’t need two acres per horse in the summer. “With ideal conditions you can get by on less than one acre per horse,” says Mowrey. “But to do this you need to make a commitment to using the (electric) tape fencing and moving the horses every few days. You also have to be flexible in case you have less-than-ideal growing conditions. On the other hand you may have abundant rain, cool temperatures, and phenomenal grass growth. In that instance you may have more forage than needed and may need to cut hay on part of the pasture.”
For traditional rotational grazing, a good rule of thumb is to take the horses off an area when the grass across the whole paddock is about 3 to 4 inches tall, on average. If they graze it much below that, the grass plants lose vigor.
“You may have some areas down to 2 inches and some that are 5 to 6 inches, but it’s still time to move the horses,” says Coleman. Due to their selective grazing, they won’t graze the whole parcel down to exactly 4 inches.
He recommends taking horses off when grass is 4 inches tall and putting them back when it regrows to 8 inches. “If you leave 4 inches, recovery will be faster and you won’t have to wait as long to go back into that piece,” he notes. “Everyone asks what the rotation time should be, but it varies. I’ve tried two weeks on and four weeks off, in a three-paddock rotation for two horses on 2.5 acres. If there’s appropriate rain, this works well. But I’ve also had to move them faster … seven days on and 14 days off.”
If grass isn’t growing adequately, discontinue pasture rotation and confine the horses where they can be fed hay.
The most common way to divide a pasture is with electric fence. “I define where the paddocks will be when I start in the spring, and I put the fences up at that time and don’t have to worry about moving them during the summer,” says Coleman. That way, if a person gets into a time crunch when it’s time to move the horses, the paddocks are ready and you just open a gate and don’t have to take time moving the fence.
If you decide to move the fences periodically to accommodate a swifter rotation system, there are some very safe fences that can be installed quickly, such as poly-tapes strung on fiberglass or small wood posts. If you have a good perimeter fence that incorporates an electric wire, you can string the temporary electric fences between them and put in another division anyplace, anytime. You can use poly-tape initially to subdivide the pastures, even if you plan to put in permanent divisions later. It always takes a season or two to determine the best locations for permanent dividers.
“What we’ve discovered is that many people don’t have time or money to put in permanent fences, but the poly-tape is working and they just leave it that way,” says Mowrey. If at some point you end up with more forage than the horses can eat, temporary fences allow you to remove the dividers if you decide to cut hay.
There are ways to “stretch” your pasture to adequately feed more than one horse on minimal acreage. However, you must be willing to create a healthy pasture and maintain it properly. In the long run, you will have more grazing, and that is better for your horses and your pocketbook.