Farming Magazine - April, 2013

COLUMNS

Working Horses: The Benefits of Rotational Grazing

By Vicki Schmidt

Most owners of working drafts realize the value of quality feeds for their horses. Forage that provides drafts with quality nutrition is best derived from soils and plant growth that are also of high quality. One way to conserve the quality of soil and nutritious plants is with rotational grazing.

One practice of good pasture management is to allow the grasses to reach heights of 6 to 10 inches before allowing your
drafts to start grazing. Once the grasses have been grazed to just a few inches, move the horses to another pasture.

One practice of good pasture management is to allow the grasses to reach heights of 6 to 10 inches before allowing your drafts to start grazing. Once the grasses have been grazed to just a few inches, move the horses to another pasture.
Photos courtesy of Vicki Schmidt.

Many pastures, especially horse pastures, fail to produce anywhere near their potential. The majority of pastures suffer from poor fertility and soil compaction, combined with serious weed or erosion problems. In addition, horses are pattern grazers, leaving some areas untouched while other areas are severely overgrazed. Continuous grazing is the number one reason pastures have low yields, as the soil and plants are never allowed a chance to recuperate.

The benefit of rotational grazing is that the healthy plants and grasses your horses like to graze on are given an opportunity to regrow. Younger plants are more desirable because they have more leaves, which have more nutrition than the stems.

Rotational grazing requires adequate amounts of land, as well as time to maintain the fields for optimal growing conditions. Begin by dividing a larger pasture into several smaller, fenced pastures. Temporary electric fencing works well for this. Highly maintained pastures on a strict rotational schedule can provide adequate forage without much need for supplemental hay during the growing season. Paying attention to a few important variables can result in a dramatic increase in forage yields.

Rotational grazing begins by dividing
a larger pasture into several smaller,
fenced pastures, most often with
temporary electric fencing.

Rotational grazing begins by dividing a larger pasture into several smaller, fenced pastures, most often with temporary electric fencing.
A critical look at your pastureland will tell you what improvements are needed.

Are noxious weeds such as buttercup, thistle and milkweed taking over? If so, one low-cost approach that will have immediate payback is to keep these mowed and removed from your pastures well before they go to seed. Spot application of weed killer is recommended if your land management plan allows it. If not, weeding by hand, though time-consuming, can provide a solution.

Your horses' grazing patterns are also easy to notice. Keep the areas where they do not graze free of weeds, but allow desired species, such as timothy and clovers, to blossom and mature, which will naturally help seed the heavily grazed areas.

Another primary step to establishing a rotational grazing program is a soil test. These are low in cost compared to the value of the information they can provide that will help improve soil fertility and rotational management. Knowing the soil's current organic matter content and available nutrients helps identify what is needed to improve the growing conditions. Once you know what the soil needs for optimal productivity, you can develop a plan for making the necessary applications.

After horses are moved to a new pasture,
the recently grazed pasture should be
mowed and dragged to break up and scatter
manure.

After horses are moved to a new pasture, the recently grazed pasture should be mowed and dragged to break up and scatter manure.

One practice of good pasture management is to allow the grasses to reach heights of 6 to 10 inches before allowing your drafts to start grazing. Once the grasses have been grazed to just a few inches, move the horses to another pasture. The grazed pasture should then be mowed and dragged to break up and scatter manure.

A primary step in establishing a rotational grazing program is a soil test. Once you
know what the soil needs for optimal productivity, you can develop a plan for making
the necessary applications.

A primary step in establishing a rotational grazing program is a soil test. Once you know what the soil needs for optimal productivity, you can develop a plan for making the necessary applications.

Allow grazed pastures to rest anywhere from 21 to 60 days. The length of resting time depends on the amount of rain, rate of growth of the grass species, and overall health of the pasture. The goal is to not overgraze any area. While you may not be able to keep rotational conditions ideal, keep the ultimate goal in mind and manage for quality forage to the fullest extent possible.

Following are some additional recommended rotational grazing practices to keep in mind.

  • The more closely the pastures are grazed, the longer the recovery time needed.
  • Aim to promote diversified grass species that allow for continued growth during warmer or drier times of the growing season.
  • Hand-scatter preferred grass seed on resting pastures when they are damp and when sun is predicted in the next few days. This helps promote increased forage and grazing productivity.
  • Understand the different needs and soil requirements of cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses and legumes.
  • A working draft will require up to 2 percent of its body weight per day in forage. If your soils are only moderately productive, plan 5 to 7 well-managed acres per draft.
  • Drafts can compact soil more quickly than other types of farm animals. This severely reduces forage productivity. Rotating pastures can help to eliminate or reduce the need for aeration.
  • To the fullest extent possible, keep horses off recovering pastures when they are wet. Maintain gate and high-traffic areas with properly set textile and drainage to help prevent mud and erosion.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manager of Troika Drafts, a working farm in the foothills of western Maine. The farm specializes in Shires for work, sport and show, and stands the Shire stallions Sassy Supreme Prince William and New England Bomber. Visit them online at www.troikadrafts.com.