If you look around your pastures, you’ll probably find that there are some sections where your horses have grazed the grass down close to the ground and others where the grass is very tall. Horses are picky eaters: they like to eat the short grass because it is sweeter and more tender than the tall grass. If you let horses out onto a pasture to graze, they will often eat the short, tender grass all the way down to the ground, and as soon as it regrows, they will go back and eat it again. However, grass needs a chance to grow and collect energy to survive. If horses keep returning to the short grass and eating it down to the ground, the grass will eventually die out.
Rotational grazing is one technique you can use to keep your horses from overgrazing. With rotational grazing, you simply rotate your horses off one section of pasture and onto another, which gives the grass in each section time to regrow. Think of rotational grazing as giving your grass a rest period so it has the time it needs to collect energy and store food in its roots.
To implement a rotational grazing system, divide your pasture into several smaller areas, or maybe just in half. Temporary fencing is especially useful. The easiest, safest, and least expensive type of temporary fencing is the electric poly tape (or a similar product). This plastic tape has aluminum fibers woven through it to conduct electricity. Install your poly tape fencing with step-in posts, three- or four-foot-tall plastic or fiberglass posts that are easily inserted into the ground. To electrify the temporary fence, simply connect it to your existing hot wire system or use a waterproof battery fence charger. Tape fencing, step-in posts, and fence chargers can all be purchased at most feed stores or farm supply catalogs.
When most of the grass in the first area has been grazed down to about three inches, move your horses to the next section of pasture. Allow the grass in the first area to regrow to at least six inches before you let your horses graze that area again. This usually takes two to six weeks during the grazing season. If the first area hasn’t quite reached six inches yet, keep your horses in a sacrifice area until the grass has had a chance to regrow completely.
Another important part of rotational grazing is determining how long to graze your horses each day. How much time you put them out depends on the size of your pasture and the number of horses you have, as well as their age, weight, breed, and whether they are already adjusted to eating pasture. For most folks, once horses are accustomed to pasture, you can let them graze for two to four hours once or twice a day. If you are fortunate enough to have productive pastures or a low stocking rate (horses per acre) you may be able to work up to six hours of grazing time.
Be very careful to not allow your horse to become overweight or to eat too much grass when they are not accustomed to it. Always begin spring grazing time gradually. Too much time in a pasture during the spring, when grasses are especially rich, can cause serious health problems. If you have any questions about the recommended grazing time for your horse, consult your veterinarian.
Here is a sample of the grazing routine I use on our farm: At the beginning of the grazing season (about mid-April), I start my horses with about an hour of grazing time. Over a period of a month or more, I work up to 2-3 hours per horse. I have observed that it takes my horses about 2 hours to consume a “meal,” so I use that as a guideline. By July, I usually have horses grazing 2 times a day (morning and late afternoon) for about 3 hours each session. They still get a third, smaller feeding of hay in the late evening.
Modify your own grazing routine to fit your horses, farm, and schedule. You can choose to put them out once or twice a day, before or after work, or whenever it’s convenient for you.