March is a great time to set up pastures for rotational grazing. Here's why:
- You will be able to separate dry and wet areas and graze accordingly.
- It's easier to plan and set up fencing before grasses and other plants get too tall.
- You can identify, or section off, problem areas you want to work on that have become weedy, compacted, bare, and are in need over-seeding or renovation.
- It's much easier to put in posts now, when the ground is soft!
Rotational grazing, called planned grazing by some, refers to dividing pastures into smaller areas and grazing horses and other livestock section by section. It is a recommended “Best Management Practice” (or BMP) for pasture management, both to increase pasture productivity, and in order to prevent overgrazing and soil compaction.
By dividing a pasture into smaller portions and rotating livestock through each section, you encourage even grazing and keep plants from becoming overgrazed. This technique guarantees fresh forage for a longer period of time during the growing season, saving you money on feed bills, and keeping your horses happily grazing.
Working with your soil types.
Begin spring grazing on the highest, driest ground. This will enable you to start grazing earlier and utilize the forage that might become drought stricken and dormant in summer. When these areas become dormant or grazed-down, you can take horses off, allowing a quicker recovery by the plants. It will also keep plants located in wetter areas protected in the early spring, allowing them to thrive.
If your horses leave imprints in the soil when they walk, it is too wet to graze; the soil will compact, tearing up grass plant roots and removing healthy oxygen. Grazing by soil type, you will have more abundant forage over the whole season.
Choosing your fencing.
When using a rotational grazing system, it’s easiest to separate grazing areas with temporary electric fencing, or utilize temporary fencing for strip grazing (moving the fence along in rows or sections). Some electric fence material can be easily retracted or wound up on a wheel and moved. Alternately, you can divide large pastures in half or into quarters and rotate grazing between the sections.
After you’ve gained some experience with rotational grazing, try further subdividing to obtain maximum forage output. Small sections are especially useful for pastures of a few acres or less that typically get over-grazed. Portable electric fencing is lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to move for pasture rotation.
T-posts with covers and electric tape, high tensile electric fencing, or New Zealand-style fencing are other inexpensive choices. They require a bit more work initially, but maintenance is minimal and they are more secure.
Most people use permanent fencing for the property perimeter, to insure that an accidental loose horse is safely contained on their property. However, if horses have plenty of forage in their grazing area, they rarely want to escape. The key is to keep moving livestock into fresh areas as needed.
Considering safety and convenience.
Consider utilizing or placing gates in your plan, so horses can easily be led (or turned out) to pasture. This can be accomplished by having your paddocks serve as a central hub, or by creating 'lanes' to pastures, like in the photo above.
Having a large, single water source that is accessible from more than one area is a huge convenience. You may want to divide pastures in such a way that horses have access to shade or shelter too, especially if during the heat of the summer they will be in these areas for more than a few hours.
Lastly, but most importantly, consider your horse's health. It can take horses many weeks for their digestive systems to adjust to processing fresh forage. Please start spring grazing slowly, increasing time on pasture incrementally each day; and check for signs of laminitis, colic, or insulin resistance. Keeping horses off grass that is grazed down to three inches or less will ensure that your horse is consuming more roughage and less sugars – a much healthier food choice for your horse, and another benefit of utilizing a rotational grazing system.
See our pasture management section and tip sheets for more on growing great grass!