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Rotational grazing can benefit horse pastures

Jennifer Earing, PhD, PAS, TFC Nutritionist 4/27/2015

By now, pastures are well on their way to being lush and green. While thoughts of running out of pasture are far from our minds, we should always be looking for ways to improve the quality and quantity of forage in our pastures, a very cost-efficient source of nutrients for horses.   

Historically, horse pastures are managed under a continuous grazing system.  We might bring them up to feed or ride for a few hours each day, but, for the most part, the horses stay out to graze.  While this requires minimal management by us, it often results in overgrazing.  Horses are notorious for selectively grazing the tastiest plants.  Over time, these plants cannot withstand the pressure and die out, resulting in bare dirt that soon becomes inhabited by weeds.  Unsightly, yes, but those weeds also represent a lost opportunity to economically supplement our horses’ diets. 

A rotational grazing system is an effective alternative.  While it requires more intensive management and investment on the front end, it allows us to improve the quality and quantity of forage available.  Rotational grazing becomes a very useful tool when trying to manage multiple horses on a small acreage and when trying to extend the grazing season.

A sacrifice lot and a large pasture divided into multiple smaller paddocks comprise a rotational grazing system.  The exact size depends on the total acreage available for pasture, but at least two paddocks are needed. Horses will be rotated among these paddocks, allowing each area time to rest and regrow. 

Horses should be allowed access to the first paddock when forages reach 6 to 10 inches in height.  When forage has been grazed to 3 to 4 inches, move horses to the next paddock, and so forth.  The regrowth period depends on the current environmental conditions.  It may be as short as seven to 10 days or as long as three to four weeks if growing conditions are not conducive.  Pastures that have been grazed more intensely will require a longer regrowth period.

When horses have been rotated through all paddocks, if the first one has not regrown to at least 6 inches, horses should be housed in a sacrifice lot — an area “sacrificed” for the good of the pasture.  Its size will depend on the number of horses it must hold; the recommended allowance is 600 to 1,000 square feet per horse.  Horses can also be moved to this lot during pasture maintenance or when the ground is muddy and hoof traffic is damaging to plants. 

In addition to rotating, regular maintenance is necessary to improve plant productivity.  This includes mowing, dragging, fertilizing, controlling weeds, and reseeding, as necessary.  Regular mowing encourages more uniform growth and subsequent grazing and can also help control weeds.  Dragging pastures spreads nutrients left in manure across pastures for more even distribution and utilization.  A soil test should be done every two to three years and fertilizer applied accordingly.  If herbicides are necessary to control weeds, be sure to read and follow the specific grazing restrictions. 

While rotational grazing requires more intensive management than traditional pasture practices, it can result in better quality and quantity of forage and reduce the environmental impact of our horses.  For more information, visit with your local Co-op agronomy specialist or Extension agent.

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