Pastures offer many advantages besides food. A well-managed pasture recycles nutrients from manure and gives horses a place for the exercise and the social interaction they need. It provides a beautiful environment, increases forage production/grazing capacity, and decreases erosion.
Grass cover on pasture will not only keep the ground from constant erosion, but provides more cushion for horses during turnout, said Carey Williams, the Equine Extension Specialist at Rutgers University.
So how do you keep those all-important pastures thriving' The first thing to do is call your county extension agent. He or she will help determine what forage species are there and look into those species and determine if they are grazing tolerant, said John Andrae, a forage and grazing management specialist at Clemson University.
If you’ve got broodmares and you have toxic tall fescue in your pastures, for example, something’s going to have to change. Or let’s say you have horses on pasture year round. Some forage species will be impossible to keep up, but Bermuda grass may thrive with that. Your agent will tell you what you don’t know.
The agent can test your soil, which will help you fertilize and lime pastures correctly. He or she will also evaluate the fertility and help you figure out a seeding and fertilizing plan. This might not happen too fast, since a new stand of grasses must also be allowed to establish before placing horses on the field for the first time. New, young grasses are high in tasty sugars and starches. They appeal to horses, who will rapidly consume the new growth and kill off the new pasture before they have time to establish a firm root system.
The lack of a root base will cause the grasses to easily be torn up by the wear and tear of the horses’ hooves on newly planted grass growth. If you seed in the spring, don’t turn horses out until at least late fall or better yet, the following spring. A good guideline is at least eight months post seeding.
The biggest mistake is too many horses on too few acres. It’s difficult to make anything work in that situation, because the horses don’t allow the forage to grow. Stocking how many horses you put out on a certain pasture truly depends upon the area of the country you live in, and the quality of the forage you are providing. At least 2-3 acres of pasture is needed per horse in order to maintain forage productivity to meet the nutritional requirements of a 1,000-lb. horse. In more arid climates, of course, each horse may need a four-acre allotment.
Using The Land
Light-to-moderate riding on properly stocked pastures won’t hurt the food source, but if the pasture is overgrazed and abused, riding can injure those plants. You’ll also do more damage if you ride over muddy/wet acreage. Rest periods are needed for common cool-season forages like tall fescue, and resting means no riding as well as no turnout on the grass.
Williams cautions that it’s important to decide if the primary function of the turn-out areas is for exercise or nutrition. If less than 1.5 acres of pasture is available per horse, the pasture grasses won’t be able to remain productive under continuous grazing conditions. Pastures under heavy grazing pressure will quickly be reduced to exercise lots. If more than two acres of pasture is available per horse, enough forage can usually be maintained to serve as a major nutritional source.
A ”sacrifice lot,” which is just a dry lot, with a run-in shed if you can manage it, can help your pastures. The horses can stand in there when you need to rest your pastures, or when muddy conditions would keep the horse slipping and churning up the grass. (You’ll have to feed hay, and muck the area. It’s sort of like a big stall.) Ideally, a grass area around the sacrifice lot will help filter any runoff.
Work to prevent weeds, which take up space and nutrients your grass needs. Birds and wildlife spread weed seeds to pastures, and weeds also like to hitch a ride on feed and manure. Since weeds love bare areas in pastures, you need to maintain thick, healthy pasture grasses that can compete with weed seedlings. If weeds become a persistent problem, you can use herbicides to control them (follow instructions).
Weeds should be identified carefully (another area in which your extension agent can help) to choose the correct product. Since new weeds will often fill in the spaces created when herbicides are used, it is important to correct the conditions that created the weed problem in the first place, and then overseed pastures when necessary.
Continuous grazing generates greater stress on pasture systems than rotational grazing. Horses are spot grazers. They’ll choose to graze in preferred areas within a pasture and consume specific forage species. When horses graze repeatedly on the same plants, carbohydrate reserves are depleted, the plants are unable to grow new leaf tissue, and the nutritious plants will be eliminated from the pasture. Weeds will proliferate, and quality grasses will die off.
If you rotate pastures, forages have time to replace the tissue lost in grazing and replenish nourishing carbohydrate levels. Rotational grazing requires time, labor, fencing, and a source of water in each paddock, which is prohibitive to some horse owners. Williams argues that the increased productivity offsets the increased costs of rotational grazing.
If you have pastureland, count yourself lucky. Then call your county extension agent to get the information you need to keep grass growing.