There’s hope for overgrazed pastures, but it takes time and patience. Here’s how to get there.
Your pastures may look like they have seen better days. Weeds have taken over and bare earth is a more common sight than grass. If this is the case, it may be time to put together a plan for rejuvenating these areas!
Identify the Source of the Problem
A successful pasture renovation plan begins by identifying the source(s) of the problem. There is a reason (or perhaps several) why what once was a healthy stand of grasses is no longer, and you need to identify what it is. Two common problems are overgrazing and poor soil nutrient quality.
1. Overgrazing primarily results from keeping more horses on a pasture than it can support. A common estimate of appropriate “stocking density” is one to two acres of pasture per horse, though this can vary substantially based on climate, soil type, and other factors. Overgrazing can also occur when horses are turned out too frequently at inappropriate times, such as in winter when grasses are dormant, or during periods of drought when grasses are stressed and cannot withstand grazing pressure.
2. Poor soil nutrient quality can result from a variety of factors. Natural variability across soils plays a role. Some soils are simply lower in nutrients than others. Additionally, when pastures are grazed, the nutrient content of the soil goes down over time unless nutrients are reapplied, typically in the form of fertilizer. Fortunately, determining the nutrient quality of your soil is a relatively simple, low (or no) cost effort. Simply contact your local county Conservation District or Ag Extension agent and they can assist you with performing a soil test.
Once you’ve determined the source of the problem, you need to address it. This sounds obvious, but it’s the only real solution to get your pastures back into shape. Quick fixes or workarounds will lead to wasted time and money – and frustration.
Stocking Density Solution
If you find your stocking density is too high, fear not. There are solutions other than having to sell some of your horses or buying more land.
Create a Sacrifice Area
The best strategy is often to make better use of the pasture acreage you already have. The first step is to establish a “sacrifice area” (also commonly referred to as paddock or dry lot) if you do not already have one. This is an area you “sacrifice” in that grasses are removed or at the very least not managed for pasture, for the overall betterment of your remaining pasture. Often, these areas will have improved footing such as crushed rock or sand. Along with proper drainage, improved footing will keep the sacrifice area dry and mud free. A sacrifice area with improved footing is an investment, typically ranging from $1 to $2 per square foot installed. Whether or not you use improved footing, a good rule of thumb for sizing your sacrifice area is 500 square feet for one horse and an additional 400 square feet for each additional horse.
As an alternative to a traditional rectangular paddock or sacrifice area, track-style paddocks have become increasingly popular, especially among the natural horsekeeping community. These paddocks are often about 12’ to 15’ wide and typically run along the perimeter of an existing pasture. This setup encourages movement, essential to horse health, with horses cruising the track in single file as they do in nature. Hay feeding stations are set up at various points along the track to further encourage movement.
Along with creating a sacrifice area, develop a plan for rotational grazing of your existing pastures. Rather than having one large pasture, divide them into sub-pastures and periodically rotate horses between them. Pastures can be inexpensively sub-divided using electric fence. Once the grass in the first sub-pasture gets down to 3” to 4”, move the horses to the second sub-pasture, letting the first rest, and so on. For both sub-dividing and overall resting of pastures, grass should be allowed to grow to about 8” again before returning horses.
Re-establish Healthy Grasses
Once you have determined if a sacrifice area and rotational grazing make sense for you, you can develop a plan for re-establishing a healthy stand of grass in your pastures. Begin by determining what type of seed you wish to plant, choosing a grass or grass/legume mix appropriate to your climate and soil conditions. In seasonal climates, a mixture of warm and cool season grasses may be best so you have grass for a longer portion of the growing season.
Consider potential health risks to your horses from different types of grasses. For example, many fescue strains contain an endophyte not suitable for brood mares. Grasses also differ in their sugar content; for example, high sugar grasses produce a greater risk of laminitis. In particular, many “improved” varieties of traditional pasture grasses are higher in sugar than their “unimproved” counterparts. Such improved grasses may work well for fattening up beef cattle, but they may not be the best choice for your horses.
Use the results of your soil test to determine if lime and/or fertilizer application is needed. Different grasses will have different pH and fertilizer needs, so it’s best to know what you plan to seed first. Be aware that increasing the pH of your soil takes time and may require multiple applications of lime, especially if you do not plan to till the lime into the soil. It’s therefore essential to be patient. Wait until soil nutrient and pH conditions are right before you seed. Otherwise you are simply wasting your time and money.
Keep in mind you don’t have to do this all at once. It’s a good idea to divide your pasture renovation project into bite-sized pieces based on your time and budget, rather than doing it all at once, to avoid cutting corners.
Patience, Patience, Patience
Once you’ve put in the hard work of developing and carrying out a plan to re-establish your pastures, be patient. The worst thing you can do at this point is reintroduce horses to the pasture too early. Everything may look great above the surface, but it takes time for newly seeded grasses to develop the deep, healthy root system essential for their long-term success. This can take up to a year or more, especially if rainfall levels are lower than normal. This is yet another reason why having a paddock or sacrifice area is helpful. In the end, allowing the new grass sufficient time to establish will be well worth the effort.
If weeds have taken over your pastures, you will need to come up with a plan to remove or kill them prior to seeding. Weeds will out-compete seedlings, preventing them from establishing successfully. As well, many weeds are toxic to horses. While not ideal, the most realistic way to remove weeds may be through herbicide application. Seek the help of a professional who can identify what weed(s) are present and recommend an appropriate, selective herbicide.
Once you have re-established a healthy stand of grass, good management (not overgrazing, and keeping pastures mowed) along with periodic manual removal of weeds may be sufficient to control the weeds without the use of herbicides.
The Equicentral System
A smart strategy for combining use of a sacrifice area and rotational grazing is known as the equicentral system. In this system, a central paddock (sacrifice area) is directly connected to a series of pastures for rotational grazing. Shelters and the only water source are found in the paddock (this is key), with separate gates connecting each of the pastures to the central paddock. Only one pasture gate is open at a time.
When horses are hungry they walk themselves out to the pasture to graze. When they are thirsty, they walk back to the paddock to have a drink. When it’s time to rotate pastures, simply close the one gate and open another. Like a track-style paddock, this system encourages movement. It also reduces the amount of “hoof time” on your pastures when horses are not grazing because they will generally loaf in the sacrifice area/paddock after getting a drink or to seek shelter.
Clay Nelson specializes in the planning, design and management of sustainable equestrian facilities. Learn more at SustainableStables.com.