Top tips for managing your pastures

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Top tips for managing your pastures

You’ve taken the time to plan and plant your pastures – now you need to manage them. Here’s how certain measures such as rotational grazing and dry lots can help.

Grazing on highly nutritious pasture optimizes the mental and physical health of your horses. But knowing what to plant isn’t quite enough – you also need to care for your pastures throughout the year. You can manage this most easily by implementing rotational grazing in the spring and summer, and dry lots or stall boarding in the dead of winter.

Rotational grazing

During the growing and grazing seasons, if you’re fortunate enough to have more than one pasture, rotational grazing is a must. Move your herd from one pasture to the next as you notice the first one being grazed down, and never let the grasses get below 3”. Overgrazing puts pressure on the grasses’ root systems by eliminating leaves needed for photosynthesis. Without taking preventative measures, you’ll eventually have no pasture at all.

If you don’t have more than one pasture, consider dividing the one you have. Even a month of keeping your horses off a hard-grazed stand of grass will be of enormous benefit to leaf production and the overall health of the pasture.

When you don’t have space: using a dry lot

In some climates and pastures, horses do fine all year round on pasture, though they may need supplemental hay, and perhaps grain. But if horses are left to graze all year, you’ll notice they tend to compact the soil and tear up the ground, especially in winter. A dry lot or sacrifice lot during the coldest months might be a solution for preserving your pasture.

Dry lots (where horses are most often fed round bales or flakes in hay feeders throughout the year), and stalls (where horses are turned out in small or large dry lots for exercise and are usually fed square bales) are both good solutions, especially when space is an issue. Many farm owners don’t have the acreage to support multiple horses on pasture alone. Stall- and dry lot-boarded horses should be supplemented with grain to make sure their nutritional needs are met.

Tim Kraus, hay production manager at Kraus Equestrian Center, uses dry lots and stall boarding to maintain the quality of his pastures. “We have about 140 stall-boarded horses and between 40 and 48 horses on dry lots,” he says. “To get through a year, we need around 14,000 square bales and 520 or so round bales.”

That’s more hay than some of us will use in several years. But since Tim caters primarily to pleasure horses, the Center can focus on hay production to support these sorts of horses, whose needs are far less demanding in terms of protein count than those of performance horses.

Tim manages the high demand for hay by growing grasses that extend his yield, and letting the pastures grow high. “If I cut our orchard grass at knee height, I get about 30 50-pound square bales, and that works out to less than a ton an acre over the growing season,” he says. But quality is also important. Tim makes sure there are no weeds in his pasture; this focus on clean production ensures the nutritional value of the hay he feeds the horses isn’t diluted with empty calories.

Consider your horses’ needs

Whether you opt to use a dry lot or stall, or practice rotational grazing, it’s important to think about your horses. What are their breeds and ages? What condition are they in? What type of work are they put to and how heavy is the workload? Once you have a clear idea about your horses’ profiles, you can determine how best to meet their nutritional needs, either in terms of growing your own hay or buying round or square bales from your local provider.

Tim’s brother, Jay Kraus, manages the barn’s horses. He carefully assesses the horses’ condition – their breeds, uses, ages or medical needs – and provides sweet feed, senior feed or other feeds to meet each need. As well, he adds in extra hay for hard keepers such as Thoroughbreds.

While keeping the horses’ breeds and ages in mind, remember that high performance horses, older horses, those with medical needs, and hard keepers also all result in unique nutritional needs. You can support your horses without pasture, as Kraus Equestrian Center demonstrates. But successfully stall boarding and dry-lotting involves special needs that you must be aware of and plan for.

How many horses per acre?

The truth is, there’s no easy answer. The ideal number of horses per acre of land varies depending on climate and soil. Texas, for example, has a completely different horse-to-pasture ratio than more temperate regions of the US, where pastures flourish on highly nutritious cool season grasses.

Steve Jackson, president of Bluegrass Equine Nutrition and an international Thoroughbred consultant for 28 years, has a warning for those with lush pasture production. “Just because a pasture is green, doesn’t mean it’s nutritious,” he says. In other words, don’t feel you can add in more horses just because of the pasture’s appearance. Overstocking a pasture is one of the quickest ways to diminish available nutrition, even in a sound pasture plan.

Let’s get specific: Steve notes that a mare, foal and yearling need five acres. For adult horses, he prefers one to three acres per horse, but one to two acres will suffice.  Unfortunately, as we all know, many people only have space for one horse per acre. If that’s your situation, monitor the herd and add in hay or grain if needed.

It’s also important to keep in mind that your entire pasture won’t be productive if horses are turned out in it regularly. You lose ground where horses gather or are active, such as at gates or water troughs.

As you see, creating a sustainable highly-nutritious pasture takes both knowledge and work. But that serene picture we’d all love to see – content and healthy horses in a field of green grass – can be accomplished. Understanding your herd, your climate, your land capacity, and the grasses that do well in your region allow you to create a unique feeding regimen just right for your situation. Once in place, maintaining a nutritionally-rich pasture is a practice all of us can achieve.