A thriving pasture is how you supplement your horse’s diet (and your wallet), provide your horse with extra legroom during the warm months, and maintain your property. The only problem is that without proper management, that wellspring of benefit can quickly dry up from overgrazing.
Most pastures are seeded with cool-season grasses, the benefit being that they grow thick and lush, perfect for grazing your horses. Cool-season grasses thrive in cooler temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees. In the spring and fall, when temperatures are in this ideal range, growth takes off. When the weather starts to warm up though, growth slows down to a crawling rate that’s sometimes referred to as the “summer slump.” If the growth of the grass doesn’t meet or exceed the rate that your horses are eating, this is when you run into trouble with overgrazing.
When horses graze, they remove the leaf and stem of the grass, leaving the root intact. It’s from the root that the grass gets nutrients to regrow. To support that process, the plant, or grass, must have enough stem to capture sunlight. When the grass is eaten down, there’s less surface area to catch light to process nutrients, which makes the already slowed process of regrowth even slower. Without the proper nutrients, the grass’ root system weakens, making it harder for the plant to grow. In time, if the cycle of grazing or cutting the grass down to the root continues, the plant will weaken until it dies or until water and erosion wipe it out.
Maintain good length. Ensure that the pasture’s grass maintains adequate length to synthesize nutrients. A good rule is to leave the bottom four inches of the grass for growth. Any length beyond that can be spared for your horse. Once the grass has been grazed down to four inches, remove your horse. Let it grow back to eight or more inches before turning out onto it again.
Keep a close eye. It’s common to think that horses will naturally gravitate toward longer grass after they’ve grazed down other areas. This isn’t the case. Instead, they’ll continue to graze the shorter grasses because of the lush (and tasty), new regrowth. An indicator that your pasture is being overgrazed is if there’s an uneven growth pattern.
Diversify your grass. While warm-weather grasses can be difficult to establish, by diversifying the grass in your pasture, you can reduce the mid-summer slump. This allows warm-weather grasses to take over until temperatures become milder, and optimized for those cool-weather grasses, in the spring or fall.
You can work with someone at a local farm or feed store to determine the type of grass that’ll be best for your area.
Manage grazing. It’s almost a given that the more horses you have on a pasture, the quicker grass is grazed down. In general, each horse needs two to three acres of pasture if you want them to be out all year long.
If you have less than this, you may need to use other feed methods. Consider fencing off areas of the pasture so you can rotate horses and allow grass to regrow.
Keep It Even
If your pasture has uneven growth and you’ve pulled your horses off to give the grass a break, consider mowing the entire pasture to create even length throughout. This can make the area more enticing to horses once they’ve been re-turned out and also reduce the prevalence of bugs.