Rotational grazing is key to keeping your pastures productive and your horses happily munching away through the dry summer months. And it’s pretty easy to do, with a little planning and the right tools.
Called planned grazing by some, rotational grazing refers to dividing a pasture into smaller areas and grazing horses section by section. Rotational grazing is a recommended “Best Management Practice” (or BMP) for pasture management, to both increase pasture productivity and to prevent overgrazing and soil compaction.
Healthy grass plants are important, not only for productive pastures and content horses, but for the role they provide in the biofiltration (capturing and degrading) of nitrogen from manure and urine and of waste and sediments.
How to set up your rotational grazing areas:
To set up a rotational grazing system, divide your pasture into a minimum of two separate areas by using either permanent or temporary fencing.
Try a portable, moving strip-grazing system (an easy and affordable option).
With a moving strip-grazing system, you can purchase just two sections of horse-safe, portable electric fencing and step-in posts to attach to your permanent fencing; when it’s time to move your horses, keep one side of the fence in place and 'leap-frog' the other side over. You'll be continuously moving the horses along the pasture in strips until you get to the end, then you will start over (read how Urban Cattle does this).
Whichever way you decide to divide your pasture, there are many fencing options - choose one you know will be safest for your horses. Many types of fencing easily retract, or roll up on a reel, making changing pastures a quick, one-person job.
Instead of moving your horses in a straight line, consider a spoke-and wheel system, which allows you to have your water source, and possibly a shade structure as the “spoke” and be utilized from any of the grazing strips on the “wheel.” See HCW’s: Paddock and Pasture Fencing tip sheet for more design ideas.
Some of the benefits of rotational grazing are:
- Encourages horses to graze evenly, wasting less forage.
- Keeps pastures from becoming overgrazed and not overtaken by bare spots and weeds, guaranteeing fresh forage for a longer period of time during summer.
- Reduces the risk of horses ingesting weeds or toxic plants that can harm them.
- Reduces the ingestion of high concentrations of sugars, which can lead to metabolic problems in horses - the highest concentration of sugar in grass plants is in the bottom three inches, or the “powerhouse” of the plant.
- Can reduce parasite ingestion and loads, and can break a parasitic organism's life-cycle.
- Reduces the risk of dirt or sand being ingested, which can lead to sand colic over time.
- Can substantially reduce feed bills.
- Encourages (mimics) the natural movement and grazing patterns of horses helping to minimize vices, boredom and prevent health issues, such as ulcers.
Step by Step - A rotational grazing checklist:
- First, put horses in an area where the grass plants are at least six to eight inches tall.
- Provide water and shade where needed; if a horse is not used to fresh forage, please limit their grazing time and increase it slowly. Check with your veterinarian for guidelines, or see how we manage pasture transitions in HCW’s: Five Keys to Better Pastures tip sheet.
- Remove horses from an area when the grass plants are grazed down to an average of three inches tall.
- Check the grazed area for toxic weeds and remove them. If you are looking for less toxic ways to control weeds, see HCW’S: Natural Solutions tip sheet.
- Mow and harrow grazed areas (or pick up or break up clumps of manure with a manure fork) so grass plants recover with fast and even growth, and any weeds that are left are not allowed to go to seed and spread.
- Additionally, mow the tops of pasture plants in any pasture areas where they are going to seed - when grass plants are forming seed heads, they stop producing leaves (tillers), decreasing available forage.
- If all of your pastures are grazed down to three inches, remove the horses to a “sacrifice area” so that grass plants can recover and grow, and so that weeds don’t set in. See HCW’s: Creating and Using a Sacrifice Area for the how's and why's of using a sacrifice area.
- If you have horses that are sensitive to the sugars in grasses (check your horse’s risk factor with your veterinarian) utilize a grazing muzzle, or graze at night, when grass plants are not actively producing high sugars as they do during photosynthesis (daylight hours).
- Make a plan to address any nutrient or soil amendment needs your pastures may have in the fall or spring. See HCW’s: Natural Solutions tip sheet for what to check for.
- If you are left with bare spots or weed patches after summer grazing, make sure to find a pasture seed that fits your needs to put down in the fall, and ideally, cover your seeds with compost.
No matter what type of grazing you do, a final thought to keep in mind is to follow the Golden Rule of Grazing: never allow grass plants to be grazed shorter than three inches. This ensures they will have reserves for rapid re-growth, even if faced with a severe drought season. Come fall, they can quickly recover and grow into lush pastures once again, providing even more forage for your horses.