Preserving Horse Pastures

Preserving Horse Pastures

Using a rotation system to prevent overgrazing, best types of grass for horse pastures and how much grass one horse can eat to keep stocking rates in balance.

buckskin stallion on grass pasture with mountains in the background (Credit: Briana Malmquist / @piperszoo)

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Knee-high, plush grass is every horse owner’s dream for a pasture. Unfortunately, it is not always a reality.

There is no magic recipe for the perfect grass and perfect pasture management for every horse. The important things to understand are the needs of your horse, the needs of your pasture and where they connect. Keep in mind these important variables:

  • Types of foliage available to you
  • Quality of available forage
  • Quantity of forage your horse requires
  • Condition and workload of your horse
  • Resources of the landowner

How Much Grass Can One Horse Eat?

One of the basics of equine nutrition is quality forage. Whether it’s hay, pasture grass or a combination of both, it is good to known just how much your horse needs to get the nutritional content he requires. Experts recommend that a horse should get 1.5 percent to 2 percent of his body weight every day in forage. For example, a 1,000-pound horse needs 15 to 20 pounds of forage daily.

Horse people sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to grazing. It is not unusual to see overgrazed pastures on horse farms. Just as a horse will over-eat grain if given the opportunity, he will graze all day whether he is on full feed or not.

The best thing to do when you have small pastures is limit horses’ time on pastures. If you have large pastures or live where rainfall and forage production is plentiful, engage the assistance of an expert, such as a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, to estimate the amount of forage available in the pasture.

Stocking Rates Vary by Region

The number of acres required to sustain a horse varies across the United States. In the semiarid West, it is not unusual for the forage requirement for one horse to be numerous acres per year. For example, on native rangeland in good condition in the Texas Panhandle, you need 35 acres to sustain an average horse for a year. In the Southwest desert, that number may be 200 acres, while on the lush pastures of Kentucky, it might be less than five acres.

Quantity of forage available is only half the equation. Quality of that forage is the rest of the story. In semiarid climates, the native forage dries quite well, retaining its nutritive value through the winter months. This is not the case in areas where precipitation is plentiful and the forage naturally contains much more water.

Forage in improved pastures is often fertilized with nitrogen and phosphorus. Stocking rates can be much higher, and the pastures receive a lot of tender, loving care compared to rangeland. Weeds are controlled through herbicides, and in many cases, supplemental water may be available to irrigate the forage.

Pasture Rotation: How to Avoid Overgrazing

You rotate the tires on your car to get the best use of the tread. By implementing a rotational grazing system in your pasture, you'll get more mileage out of your forages. Overgrazing a pasture stops root growth and diminishes the amount and quality of the grass. It can also result in soil erosion because the grass isn't there to prevent the soil from being blown or washed away. Subdivide large pastures into smaller grazing areas to restrict the amount of time an area is grazed, suggests Dr. Thomas Lenz.

Horses are rotated through the cells or paddocks during the grazing season. Each paddock is grazed for a certain period of time, giving the grass in the other cells time to rest and regrow.

  • Provide at least one acre of good-quality pasture per horse per paddock. Horses should graze the grass in a paddock down to about 2 inches over at least a week's time.
  • Rotate the horses between paddocks to break the life cycle of some parasites.
  • Because horses are spot grazers, there will be some taller grass left after they've been removed from a paddock. Dr. Lenz suggests mowing the taller forage to the height equal to the grazed grass. Drag the paddock with a chain-link harrow to scatter manure.
  • Test the forage to determine if you need to supplement it with grain to meet protein and energy requirements.
  • Fertilize the forage.
  • Because it's moveable, temporary and inexpensive, use electric fencing to divide the pasture into paddocks.
  • Water is the biggest obstacle to developing a controlled grazing system. Try to locate a watering point that's central to all paddocks. Daily water requirement for a grazing horse is 8 gallons.
  • Provide shelter (trees or buildings) in each paddock so the horses can get in out of bad weather and heat.
  • Be willing to change the size of the paddocks, the numbers of animals allowed to graze or the length of the grazing period. Remember, you might need to use supplemental feed or forages.
  • Track the health of your grazing system by keeping records on rainfall, forage testing, grazing periods and fertilizer applications.

Types of Horse Pasture Grasses

Bermuda grass is common in the Southwest but requires irrigation in many areas. It also requires frequent fertilization. In the Western states, less improved pasture is available, due primarily to the limited precipitation. It is not unusual to find pastures planted with brome grasses and varieties of wheat grass (not wheat, but wheat grasses that are native plants).

Through the Midwest and Eastern states, there are many options for pastures, but the most common are bluegrasses, brome grasses and timothy. Most require fertilization.

Improved pastures require more intensive management: fertilization, rotational grazing and weed control. Rotational grazing can be achieved on a small scale with the use of an electric fence. The idea is to give some of the pasture rest or a break from grazing and concentrate the horses on a smaller portion of the pasture with frequent rotation.

Horse Pasture Experts 

Your county extension agent or USDA Natural Resources Conservation representative can help with estimating a proper stocking rate, quality and quantity of forage, and the best way to use your pasture.

It might be wise to send forage samples for nutritional analysis to help with pasture management and to make sure the forage is providing proper nutrition for your horse. These local experts are equipped to offer advice specific to your area.

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