The last several years have been tough ones for horse owners and their pastures alike -- blistering summers, wet springs and hay shortages have made it more important than ever that we take special care of our grazing areas if we hope to keep them in usable shape for the future. By changing your attitude about pasturing and keeping a closer eye on the health of your grass, you can ensure that your horses will have something to eat when the summer’s sun is pounding down on the fields.
The Problem with Free Grazing
A typical 1,000 pound horse needs about two acres of pasture to sustain them under the best of conditions, but they don’t think about the future of their grazing areas when they’re eating. Unlike other foraging animals, horses can eat grasses down to the ground, damaging the crowns of the plants or killing them completely. Unfortunately, they’re also fairly picky eaters, avoiding grasses that are anything but perfect. To be fair to them, these behaviors have kept all of horse-kind alive for this long, but they’re simply incompatible with life in a pasture.
Free grazing often leads to completely bare pastures at worst or ragged, unhealthy pastures in good situations. As grasses are damaged or destroyed, they’re replaced by opportunistic weeds, many of which are either unpalatable or unhealthy for your horse. If you leave this situation to play out, you’ll have a very sick or hungry horse surrounded by weeds or raw dirt before you know it -- that’s why so many horse owners are turning to controlled pasturing.
Ways to Preserve Your Pasture
There are a couple of ways to protect your pasture that won’t become even bigger headaches in the long run. Limited grazing and rotational grazing are the most common, depending on how much space you have to dedicate to feeding your horses. Horses don’t actually need to graze all the time, they can make do with a few hours of access to fresh grass and supplemental hay in a smaller paddock or dry lot.
Keeping your horses close to the barn most of the day will prolong the life of your pasture, but you’ve got to pay good attention to sanitation for limited grazing to work. After all, nobody likes to hang around a dirty exercise area. These systems can be nice since you can also move your horses into their dry area anytime grass is wet to prevent them from damaging the pasture.
Rotational grazing is a little more complicated than limited grazing, but it’s extremely effective if you have some extra space. Most horse owners divide their land into several plots, each with access to the barn and fresh water. You may be able to get away with just four grazing areas, but the more you can create (within reason), the better. Fence each area off and make all but one strictly off limits to your horses. When the grasses in one area have reached six to eight inches in height, then let your horses in to graze as much as they’d like -- until the grass is about three inches tall.
Rotate your horses to the next grazing area, closing the recently occupied area down until it has had time to recuperate. Depending on the weather, recovery may take two to four weeks, so plan accordingly. Continue to rotate your horses through your grazing areas -- if you find they’re eating them down before the next area is ready, you may need to limit the horses’ access to make the grass last longer.
Don’t Overlook Legumes
Once you have a rotational system established, reseeding pastures becomes a much easier process. When you’ve got to rejuvenate a damaged pasture, look to nutrient rich legumes like alfalfa or clover to give your horses more bang for their buck. These tough plants require little fertilizer, grow aggressively and contain more protein than field grass alone. If you’ve allowed your pasture to be overgrazed, this is an excellent opportunity to incorporate fresh legumes into your horse’s diet. Seed the area and water it well, then close it off until the legumes of your choice are large, healthy specimens. You may have to provide supplemental water, but once these plants are established they’ll need very little care.
Like lots of grasses, many legumes are perennials, so once your stand is up and running, you’ll not have to do anything else with it for a long time if you keep your horses rotating through your grazing areas. These hardy plants do well even on poor land where grasses struggle as long as it doesn’t stay soggy -- they can even fix their own nitrogen from the air because of a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that live on their roots. In tough times, we need tough plants to help keep our pastures at their best, and legumes are about as tough as they get.
Making Feeding Hay Affordable
We understand that hay has been in short supply lately, but if you’re going to make a limited pasture last, you’re going to have to feed your horses something else. Hay is one of the best things for your horses, they love it and you can keep a continuous supply going on a dry lot. Unfortunately, it has also become a very expensive commodity for many horse owners, forcing them to sell favorite horses or defer horse purchases.
When you’ve got to choose between the cost of feeding hay and wrecking your pasture, look into ways of shaving the hay budget before you let your horses eat the fields to nothing. Not only will it be expensive to fix these damaged areas, the closer to the ground your horses eat, the more they’ll expose themselves to parasites and other problems.
Owners of multiple horses often find they get a much better deal by purchasing large round bales and distributing them in a specialized round bale feeder. Your horses will have 1,200 pounds or so of hay to work through with each bale, at a fraction of the cost of buying the same weight in square bales.
Round bales can be messy and hard to deal with if you don’t have a tractor, so owners of just one or two horses may still opt for easier to manage square bales. In the early spring, ask your favorite hay dealer if they’ll be willing to give you a better price if you collect your own bales straight from the field. Many times you’ll be able to get a good deal if the hay cutter doesn’t also have to haul and store your hay for you.
As this spring turns into summer, keep an eye on your pasture. It’s up to you to provide your horses with decent grazing areas, but you can’t spend a fortune on water to keep it constantly hydrated. Instead, focus on establishing healthy plants and rotate grazing areas to make your pasture better than ever before.