Pastures are practically a necessity. Unfortunately, more and more of us are finding we have less and less pasture — but more horses. By putting some time, materials and labor into controlled grazing (also called intensive or rotational grazing), you can make the most of what you’ve got.
Most horse farms use a few large fields for grazing. Different terrains in the pastures support grazing plants differently. Hills may be more fragile or quit producing in the summer. Southern exposures may have the best early season growth but become over-impacted later. Flat land may be a great producer, so much so that the horses leave some plants untouched to grow tall and stemmy. Low-lying wet land provides wonderful grazing after the wet season, provided the horses haven’t trampled the grass before it dries.
Areas near the barn usually produce just mud. Many stables, especially boarding stables, won’t let horses out on wet-weather days for fear the hooves will damage the grass. Others let the horses out and simply accept the damage. With controlled grazing, horses can go out every day regardless of the weather and fields get time to rest and rejuvenate between grazings.
Pastures generally contain one or more species that are both desirable and palatable. Chances are your pasture contains more than one grass species (like bermuda or timothy) and it may contain a legume (like red or white clover). In general, the legumes supply more protein, plus they contribute nitrogen fertilizer back into the soil.
It’s advantageous to have a mix of species. However, some are more palatable than others and, given a chance, the horses will repeatedly eat the tasty ones and leave the others to grow old and reproduce, especially in favorite grazing areas. Gradually, the less tasty species take over the pasture.
What you need is an adaptive management strategy. It’s a lot like investing money in the stock market. A conservative choice will provide low but consistent income (somewhat nutritious roughage), but a closer watch on the market (pasture situation) and the effort to change your investment as appropriate (rotate, use a smaller section, use a holding area, change the stocking rate) will pay off in greater long-term gains (more nutritious grazing).
Your controlled grazing strategy begins with a look at your perimeter fence, which must be well-maintained and strong. You then divide your main field into smaller fields, which you will use to rotate grazing areas. The smaller, inner sections of pasture don’t have to be as strongly fenced, but the fence still must be safe, visible and secure.
A simple portable electric fence system may be ideal for making small sections, provided your horses are trained to accept it. There are many types of lightweight fiberglass poles and highly visible tapes on the market. You can choose to tie into your barn electrical system, use a portable battery or use solar power.
When you set up the electric fencing, give your horses a chance to learn to respect it by placing it near, and just inside, solid fencing before using it to divide your larger field. If you need to separate horses, subdivide each of their larger pastures with traditional horse fence. Electric fence alone is not recommended for separating horses or as a perimeter fence.
Divide your field into at least three different areas, whether you have one horse or many. Two are grazing areas that you will alternate. More than two grazing areas are needed if you have fewer horses on large tracts of land, if your climate allows only one regrowth per season (like in the western mountains) and during the spring and early summer when the grasses are growing rapidly. By not using the same grazing area all the time, you allow the grazed plants to regrow tall enough to sustain their roots before they’re eaten down again.
The third area is a holding area, also known as a sacrifice area. This area is not expected to provide any nutrients. It is used when the horses need to be outdoors but you don’t want them in a grazing area. You can feed hay in this area, and turn the horses out for exercise here.
What Works For You
Plan your sections. Draw them on paper first, then set up a section with temporary fence. Based on how that works, you can alter your plans. It may take a few seasons before you determine which sequence of sections, size of sections, and how much time per section works best. You can even set up your gates and/or an access lane with temporary fencing to see how well you like them. Ideally, each section should be accessible without going through other sections and include a gate access that is conveniently near the barn. As with standard fencing, avoid tight passageways and sharp corners that might trap horses.
Each section should include access to water and shelter. Natural water sources are ideal if the banks allow horse traffic without eroding. You may be able to save time and money if you can plan water troughs so that they can be shared by multiple sections. The nearer they are to the barn the easier it is to fill, check, clean and thaw them. Take advantage of natural shelter, like trees or hills, as possible. If you have to build shelters, locate them so you can include them in multiple grazing sections.
We suggest you minimize your initial temporary fencing expense, then look for ways to minimize labor later. Instead of buying enough temporary fence for all the sections at first, try leaving one fence line and leapfrogging the other fence line over it to enclose a fresh, ungrazed section.
As you find out that certain sections are always going to be the same size, you can buy enough additional fencing to enclose them for the summer. Put these fences up in the spring and rotate through the sections two or more times throughout the growing season.
After the growing season, you may be able to open the whole pasture to your horses by removing the temporary fencing.
Choose your sections to separate different topographical/production areas. By separating off that wet section, you can wait and graze its ample production after it dries out. This minimizes the time the horses spend in the mud plus allows the section to reach full production without being uprooted early in the year.
By making a steeper area a section of its own, you can force the horses to use it while normally they’d only pass through. This gives them the benefit of the good forage found there and causes them to utilize any mature forage there that they would normally eschew for tender lowland regrowth.
When To Rotate
Move horses off the section when they’ve grazed down to an average of 2” to 4” of forage. Determining this level of grass height takes a little practice. You’ll still see taller weeds, and some popular areas will get grazed shorter than 2”. Take an average to make your decision.
When your stocking rate (animals per acre) is high-enough on a small-enough section, watch closely, because the section can get overgrazed quickly. Avoid overgrazing — it decreases productivity. Your goal height depends on the species you grow and on the climate. Some will tolerate lower grazing than others. If the temperature or rainfall won’t allow easy regrowth, it’s better to move the horses sooner rather than later. If you leave the horses on too long, they’ll nip off the regrowth.
Allow at least 6” of growth before you return the horses to that section. Regrowth may take three weeks to half a season, depending on the species and the time of the year.
When the grass grows too fast for the horses to consume a section in two weeks, leave sections ungrazed. You may want to cut these ungrazed sections for hay, if you have the ability or know someone who does. Otherwise, use that area for grazing later when growth slows or stops (you may have to mow it down to a grazing height). A small untouched area, wit h a balance of mature or even over-mature forage, is still more palatable and nutritious than the leftover mature plants from a large grazed pasture.
Horses Per Section
While you are dealing with a set number of horses and a set number of acres, you may have some flexibility in how many horses are out at once. For example, you may be able to turn either a pair or four horses out together. You may be able to turn mares out during the day and geldings out at night on the same section (or whatever combination works for you). When a section is producing well, you can keep more horses on it. In fact, you’ll want to intensively graze that section to cause the horses to eat all the available forage (and not be so picky), but not leave the horses on long enough for them to start grazing the regrowth.
Choose an appropriate section size. It must have adequate forage, play space and economize fence-moving labor. Forage availability can be calculated visually, so that each section lasts at least a week. If you have to change sections too often, you’re expending too much labor.
You must allow sufficient space for the horses to find their personal space and to run and play. Crowding horses up against an electric fence is invitation for one of them to go through it — don’t take this possibility lightly. If you have fewer horses, you’ll make smaller sections in order for them to graze all the available forage in a week or two. After a couple of weeks, regrowth begins. The goal is for the horses to eat down all the appropriate forage before regrowth begins.
Use controlled grazing to cause the horses to eat the older grasses. This has the benefit of influencing them to eat evenly and consistently, makes them utilize the grass you have, and is of benefit to the pasture (it avoids favoring one desirable species over another). It’s a labor saver because they’ll eat the taller older grasses, and you’ll have to mow less often.
Older grasses are lower in palatability and digestibility because they are more stemmy. Their nutritive content decreases as they bloom and go to seed. Most of the nutrients are in the leaves, not the stems. However, if your horse needs higher protein or more energy, you are probably already feeding grain as well. The goal is to get the most out of your pasture that you can, and then supplement with grain.
Watch those weeds. Even the most carefully managed pasture contains some weeds, though pastures that are intensively grazed will have a strong forage stand that keeps weeds at a minimum. Some weeds are merely unpalatable, while others are dangerous. Don’t assume that, if there’s still some tall stuff out there, you’re seeing grass. Walk out there and be sure. Never leave the horses on an area that is so over grazed, they’ll be looking for weeds to eat. Generally horses will avoid eating weeds, particularly the toxic ones, if there is something else to eat. Don’t force them to go looking.
Mow and drag between grazings as needed, although you’ll need to do less with controlled grazing than you would otherwise. Mowing removes the tall, stemmy growth on the desirable species and encourages them to put out new growth. For the less palatable or desirable species, it catches them before they go to seed and when the horses are put back on that area they’re more likely to eat the tender new growth. In this way, intensive grazing balances out the horses’ use of the pasture and maintains the balance of species by keeping the less palatable and desirable species from taking over.
The combination of mowing and controlled grazing helps control the brush that crops up in odd areas of your pastures. Dragging breaks up the manure, exposing parasites to the elements and distributing organic matter over the soil. Controlled grazing has a beneficial effect that may allow you to drag your pasture less frequently. When the horses are actively grazing in the smaller sections they distribute their manure more evenly, and as you rotate sections you avoid the manure piles common to the one-big-field grazing method.
Maintain your balance of species. By causing the horses to use all the species, you’ll keep a longer growing season. If you can, allow each section a year — over the course of a few years — to mature and go to seed. This will help give you a stronger stand, particularly in species that reseed themselves.
Also With This Article
Click here to view ”Rotational Grazing Farm Plan.”