Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Grazing Tuesdays- Managing Horse Pasture

If I had married someone else, well, a lot of things would be different. But specifically I probably wouldn't be as interested or careful about pasture management for my horses. My husband has been a dedicated rotational grazer with sheep and cattle for decades and I have gone along, sometimes willingly, sometimes being dragged. But like everything else in the relationship, I'm better off as a result.

But I want to be very clear that I am not as invested nor educated in grasses and their growth and care as many other people are. What I do is a result of those decades of listening to him, and then experimenting. Because horses are different from cattle and sheep in many ways, it wouldn't make sense to do exactly what he does. I would love for other horse people to read this and look at their pastures more carefully, research further, and try to do a better job of managing the plants and the land. But what works for me is specific to my situation, where I live, and the equines who are here. So please do your own careful research and consult with professionals before making any dramatic changes. 

I recently posted some photos of my grazing stick on social media and several people commented on it, wanting to know where I got it. Many years ago (ten?), I attended a pasture walk specific to horses pastures hosted by Vermont Extension and that is where I got the stick. I use it during grazing season as it has a lot of information on it. Because of the feedback I received about it, I'm going to post more pictures of it on coming Tuesdays, along with information about how I manage my horses, ponies, and pasture. Those will be available on both my Facebook and Instagram feeds. 

To start things off, I thought it would be a good idea to give a general overview. 

I have about 4½  acres of pasture for 6 equines. For a really cool tool to calculate the acreage of your pasture, you can use this nifty site along with google maps. 

I have divided those 4½  acres into paddocks. For many years I tried to build paddocks as I went, as a good rotational grazer would do, so that the paddocks were the right size depending on the season. But that was way too labor intensive for me (I'd rather be training than building fence!) and I now have somewhere between ten and fifteen paddocks which I set up in the spring and take down in the fall, ideally before snow falls but October snow takes me by surprise. 

The general rule is that you should never graze a paddock longer than five days. This is because that's when the first grass they bit off begins to grow back and that's the sweetest. That's what the horses choose to eat, and so they just keep eating what has already been grazed, which is why you see horse pastures where some of the grass is chewed off right to the ground and other parts are high. The high grass is older and doesn't taste as good so they just leave it. 
The other important number is 30 plus or minus days until that grass regrows enough to be grazed again. 

A little math tells us 30 days to regrow, divided by 5 days per paddock, equals a minimum of six paddocks. But of course later in the year, the grass is not growing as quickly as it is right now so it takes longer than 30 days for a paddock to recover. Therefore I need more than six. It's best to really study the grasses and know the best maturity stage for grazing. And that's where horses and other livestock differ dramatically. Livestock which is grazing to produce milk or meat needs high energy grasses. High energy grasses are not good for horses...with the exception of mares nursing foals or young horses who are rapidly growing. Therefore, I aim for mature grass, and I only turn my horses out onto it for a couple hours/day.

One of the reasons I caution others to learn more before trying this is because both my vet and hoof trimmer were horrified when they saw what my horses were grazing. Because of the dangers of laminitis, we are told to keep our horses off "lush" grass. But what exactly is "lush"? That's why it's important to learn more about the growth phases so we know the best  way to keep our horses happy and safe. Two things I read/watched this spring were helpful to me. The first was an interview put out by SmartPak about when it is safe to turn out onto grass in spring. What I loved about this interview was the discussion about time of day, as well as time of year, and the science behind it all. That can be seen or heard here: When Should I Let My Horses Out to Graze?  

The other video which was helpful is by the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and discusses the plant side of things. It's called "It's Spring. Is Your Pasture Ready for Animals? 

When my horses are not on grass, they are either in their stalls (during the heat of the day in summer) or in the "sacrifice paddock" or "dry lot" (at night). They have access to hay there but often don't eat much of it because they are so full from grass. But horses do best with small amounts of fiber going through their systems regularly so I want to be sure they can nibble when they want. 

As far as the horses I have, they include a 12 h, 30+ year old pony who foundered before I got her 15 years ago and has pretty significant bone rotation seen on x-ray. But she hasn't foundered since I've had her through my rotation grazing journey. Initially I was really cautious about her and kept her separate, locking her into those tiny patches of weeds that the horses wouldn't eat. Over time, I got more bold in where I put her, as I became more confident about the grass. Finally, a few years ago, I made her a deal. I told her she had earned the right to enjoy her final final years. I could have locked her into a dirt paddock as I was advised, but I couldn't bear that thought. I wanted her to enjoy her retirement. So I told her she could go out with the others, and if she foundered, I would put her down.  I voted for quality over quantity of days. And she has been fine. My vet cringes, my hoof trimmer nervously checks for digital pulses (and I confess I do too), but she just is fine. 

On the other end of the scale is a 16.1 h, solid, 11 year old OTTB gelding. He's the one who challenged me that grass was sufficient.  He just needs more calories. Rather than putting him out on richer grass, I supplement with high fat, high fiber, low starch, low sugar grain. Because the other part of pasture time is social time. I like my horses to be together to play, groom each other, and help keep off the bugs. So I take that into account if I'm tempted to separate anyone out. 

The challenging two are the middle aged ponies. The do not need calories and are easy keepers. If I separate anyone, I separate them. They stay together, but go into less desirable areas to graze. Especially because they are voracious grazers and tend to get quite portly. And somebody needs to clean up the barnyard!

Having learned about #BlackoutTuesday, I postponed this week's Grazing Tuesday social media posts to Wednesday.

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