The country of New Zealand is tiny — about the size of the state of Oregon. Yet this small country has a reputation for producing some of the finest grass-fed beef and lamb. How does New Zealand, with such a small grazing area, do this?
Easy. New Zealand farmers are really, really good at grazing management, the topic of this third and final installment in our series on Pasture Management for Healthy Horses. If you’ve been following along with this series, you already know how to select the right mix of grasses for optimal nutrition, and how to get rid of the weeds in your pasture. Now we’re exploring the third element of improving your paddocks: good pasture management.
Cows, goats and sheep are examples of ruminants, which have four stomachs to help them to break down even less-than-desirable forage. Horses are non-ruminants, so they prefer to eat the better-quality forage in a pasture and leave the rest. If you’re dealing with lots of mud from heavy rainfalls, haven’t mucked out your pastures in a while or have fields that are otherwise under stress, those sections of top-quality grass will just continue getting smaller, putting them at risk for overgrazing. Once a pasture has been overgrazed, it takes a lot longer for it to recover (if ever).
Strategic Fencing for Healthier Pastures
Many factors can impact how many horses you can successfully graze in one pasture, but you can count on needing at least 2-4 acres per horse in order to provide adequate nutrition. If your pastures are full of weeds or otherwise challenged, you’ll need additional acreage per horse, and may need to supplement with hay or other forage.
Strategic fencing is one technique that can help pastures of all sizes. By breaking one large pasture down into several small paddocks, you can control how and when horses graze certain areas of the field. Here’s why that’s beneficial:
- It gives overgrazed areas time to regenerate.
- It lets muddy areas dry out while drier paddocks are in use.
- It allows you to selectively reseed or fertilize/drag stressed areas.
- It’s possible to rotate horses to paddocks where grass is at its optimal stage of maturity for nutrition. Horses derive the most balanced, appropriate nutrition from plants just entering the elongation phase — just after a plant has developed its leaves and before it enters the process of going to seed.
- It prevents overgrazing, which can result in damaging the plant’s roots. A plant with shallow or damaged roots has lower production levels and is of poorer feed quality.
- It also discourages competition from weeds that invade when forage is overgrazed and weakened.
- It limits soil compaction and reduced soil erosion.
In addition to creating smaller paddocks for grazing, you might also consider taking another cue from New Zealand farmers. In addition to following strict pasture rotation schedules, New Zealanders also fence off areas of natural water accumulation (lakes, streams, rivers) in favor of providing water troughs. This gives you more control over the quality of water provided, in addition to preventing muddy areas from taking over areas of the pasture.
Some additional fencing and a little creativity can go a long way towards protecting your pastures as well as encouraging your horses to move and graze more naturally – which is good for their digestive systems, hooves, and more. We like this example from the breeding establishment Dutch Hollow Acres of a pasture that is sectioned and also includes an outside track, feeding stations, and shelter.
When to Rotate Between Pastures
It’s tempting to go on autopilot with pasture rotation, but the goal is to rotate according to the growth stage of your pasture. By waiting until a paddock has recovered to the elongation stage (when a plant has developed leaves and is growing taller), you ensure you’re not permanently damaging an area. Forage will also be at the peak of its nutrition.
A good rule of thumb is to start grazing when forage is at least 6 to 10 inches long, and to move horses when the forage is an average height of 3 to four inches.
Mow Your Fields for Better Grazing
It seems counterintuitive, but mowing your pasture actually helps the grass to grow. It promotes the growth of new grass shoots, called tillers, which create dense, leafy vegetation. It also limits weeds from growing out of control by cutting them off before they reach the stage of reseeding. Maintain a mower height that clips forage between 2 to 3 inches for fine, short grasses, and between 3 to 5 inches for orchard grass or timothy, which naturally grows taller. If you mow too close, you’ll make it harder for the plant to regrow.
Careful Management Means Better Pastures and Healthier Pastures
Growing grass might seem like a no-brainer — but nurturing top-quality, highly nutritious forage requires you to treat your grasses like you would a field of wheat or corn. When you approach pastures with the same care as you would a cash crop, you’ll end up with more productive fields, and happier, better-nourished horses.
As we often write, the key to a healthy digestive system is providing a horse with small quantities of high-quality feed — constantly. And with a little work and astute pasture management, it’s possible to do so without even leaving your horse’s paddock.
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