(Written by Sandy Siegrist -- Published in Equine Wellness magazine)
An Environmental Approach to Pasture Management
One of my favorite moments is listening to one of my horses grazing. The gentle chewing noises, the tearing of the grass, the occasional soft squeak when a blade of grass slides though the powerful teeth. Fess up. Most horse owners have relished in a quiet moment like this spent alone with our horse. Such a simple pleasure in life.
But the idea of a healthy pasture available in perpetuity to nourish our horses… Now that doesn’t always seem quite so simple. But in reality, it is. Our goals are to provide the best nutrition and a happy lifestyle that optimize our equine companion’s health, wellness and performance. And the most important factor is a healthy pasture that can support them effectively. A healthy pasture offers good nutrition. It brings emotional health. And it’s an outlet for play and exercise.
So how do we keep our pastures healthy? We start with healthy land. Just like a solid foundation is essential to building a house that will hold our family in safety and comfort, a good pasture needs the foundation of healthy land. Healthy land brings healthy pastures – healthy pastures are a building block to a healthy horse. Simple, right?
Yet there are many scientific studies that tell us of decreasing nutritional value of the plants we grow. Overuse and other environmental factors have led to a depletion of our soils. As plants grow, they draw nutrients from the soil. If there are inadequate nutrients in the soil, the plants that we grow will also be deficient in those nutrients. So we have to start with the soil.
Here are a few things to keep in mind as you build and maintain a great foundation of healthy pasture for your horses. First, we have to assess the health of our soil as a starting point. Then we have to make sure that we use the pastures in a healthy and responsible manner. And finally, we have to properly maintain the pasture.
The first step to an environmentally healthy pasture is an evaluation of your soil and plant life. You can start with a visual inspection. Get out there and walk your land. Pay attention to:
Next you should have your soil tested. You need to understand what nutrients are both present in and missing from your soil in order to be able to build a better crop. Most experts suggest an annual test – every other year at a minimum. This will help you develop a good plan for building your soil foundation effectively and monitor the effectiveness and progress of your pasture management program.
County conservation districts and state/county extension offices are among the great resources available to help you learn about soil testing, the best grasses to grow in your area, and the types of noxious weeds to be aware of in your region. You can find these listed in your phone directory, or better yet on the internet. Most of these groups have great self-help websites. And many of them will send an expert out to your farm to provide assistance and consulting.
Using your pastures properly is the next critical step to maintaining optimal health. You should familiarize yourself with the climate and growing seasons in your area. Know when the grass stops growing to go dormant for the winter. Know when the rains typically come and go. Know when you consistently will have dry periods. Pay attention to when the grasses first start growing again in the spring. You should understand all of this in order to adjust your grazing practices accordingly.
Proper grazing involves making sure that you don’t permit your horses to eat the grass too short. Grasses need a certain amount of plant structure above the soil in order to maintain a healthy root. If we let our horses overgraze, we’re damaging the plants themselves and jeopardizing the overall health of the pasture. Overgrazing can lead to a loss of topsoil through erosion as well as an increase in weeds that choke out the grass we need to feed the horses.
By planning pasture spaces so that you can rotate usage and allow for proper growth of the grasses between grazing periods, you can prevent overgrazing. You will have to balance the size and number of your pasture subdivisions to optimize both the ability to give pastures a “rest” from grazing as well as having enough room for your horses to stretch their legs and get exercise when they’re in pasture.
As you rotate the use of your pastures, you should START allowing the horses to graze when the grass reaches approximately 6-8 inches in height. You should take your horses OFF the pasture and move them to another area for grazing when the grass has been eaten down to about 3 inches. Then after the grass grows again, you can bring the horses back for more grazing.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are areas in your pastures where your horses tend to eliminate – and then they won’t readily eat the grasses that grow in that area even though they appear to be very rich. The manure that’s deposited in these areas results in grasses that are very high in nitrogen, and the horses will avoid those unless that’s all that’s left for them to consume. So a critical step to rotating your pastures is to properly dispose of that manure. Either pick it up and add it to your manure composting bins or break it up by kicking apart the piles or dragging a harrow. This step will also minimize the opportunities for parasites to infest your soils and, hence, your horses.
After I pull my horses off one section of pasture for grazing and move them to the next section, I like to manage the manure and then mow. By cutting the grasses to a consistent length, some growth is spurred, and I can more effectively monitor when that section is next available for grazing. I can also prevent the areas that the horses don’t tend to graze on from growing too long and going to seed.
Finally, proper use of your pastures involves monitoring heavy traffic areas. We’ve all seen how mud develops or grasses are worn down by heavy travel of horse hooves. Near water sources and around gates seem to be the most severely impacted. Consider using rock or gravel in those areas to minimize the mud, which we all know tends to spread over time. And mud means no pasture to grow healthy grasses for our horses!
Now that you’ve built a great soil foundation and are properly utilizing your pastures to ensure their health, how do you maintain them?
Proper mowing and harrowing to break up manure and keep the top layer of soil aerated is the first critical step. Next up is augmentation, which comes in several forms:
Remember, healthy land means healthy pastures – and healthy pastures lead to healthier horses!