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Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Rotational Grazing Systems

By Jennifer Mohler, Bridger Scientific, Inc.

 

June 2009 Issue

 

Part 2

[In last month’s issue, Jen Mohler described the daily grazing needs of the horse, and suggests horse owners use several smaller pastures to rotate their horses’ grazing. A centralized “dry lot” is a key part of her system. She uses her own acreage as an example.

     This month, she discusses more details of optimum grass management: Limiting the amount of time horses graze, and leaving four inches of stubble.]

     Readers may find Part 1 of this article in RMR’s online, digital edition at

www.rockymountainrider.com.]

 

Limiting Hours on Pasture

     Most average adult horses need to graze only four to six hours per day to meet their nutritional needs. Again, that’s for most horses, so assess each individual animal and constantly monitor their condition.

     I found that a total of 5 hours of grazing per day, 2.5 hours in the morning and 2.5 at the evening, worked well for my horses. While I am keenly aware that horses do best with multiple small meals per day, I’m also aware that letting my horses out four times day for an hour at a time is not feasible.

 

Table 3

Grazing hours add up!

Hours per day

Hours per month

Hours per year

4

120

1440

8

240

2880

12

360

4320

 

     You can see the dramatic difference in hours at the end of a year. Managing by hours enables me to feed via pasture for six months of the year, and to “bank hours” for use later in the fall and winter when exercising/riding is difficult.

     I use these “banked hours” wisely, letting my horses out on pasture for an hour or so per day for exercise. I often do this after they’ve finished their hay to minimize the “grazing” impact, as horses with full bellies don’t exert the same grazing pressure as a hungry animal.

     In addition, I follow all the other best management practices, like not letting my horses out on wet pastures to prevent soil compaction.

     The health benefits of limiting hours on pasture are also important. A study from Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary medicine found that 51% of horses were overweight or obese. Most horses were not getting big meals or grain, but simply grass hay and pasture. The culprit turns out to be lack of exercise and pastures with improved forage. In short, obesity is a type of chronic inflammatory condition and increases your horse’s risk of laminitis and founder.

     While I have discussed ways that have worked for me, they may not all fit with everyone’s lifestyle or schedule. Try to implement the concept in a way that works for you.

 

Leave 4 Inches of Stubble

     Grass, like all living organisms, has a life cycle. When a pasture is grazed continuously, grass plants don’t have sufficient time to recover. Begin grazing when grasses are six to eight inches high, stop when they are four inches tall and rotate to another pasture. Don’t regraze the first pasture until the grasses have regrown to six to eight inches tall. If your grasses haven’t regrown, it’s time to feed hay (the cheapest form of weed control).

 

Why leave four inches of grass stubble?

 

Protects at risk horses from plant parts high in NSC

Insulates plants from cold temperatures

Traps snow in the winter and results in slower spring melt

Protects soil from erosive forces: water, wind and UV

Decreases air flow to the ground which aids in conserving soil moisture

Grasses begins growing earlier in the year

Increases grass yields the following year

 

     If horses grazed pastures to an even four inches, then life would be easy. Since they don’t, you’ll have to determine when a pasture is done being grazed, and sometime it’s not black and white.

     For example, there is one area in my pasture that my horses always graze down to a “putting green.” The only way I can prevent them from grazing it down is to fence that section off. Since fencing that area off is not my preference, I regularly inspect my “putting green,” checking to see if weeds are moving in. So far, I’m not seeing weeds move in, and the grasses are still dense, with no bare ground. Since the area is mostly Kentucky bluegrass, which is more tolerant of grazing, I seem to be getting away with it.

     In general, I assess the pasture stubble height as a whole in order to determine when my horses should be moved to another pasture. Again, it’s about finding a balance and managing in a way that works for you and your animals.

     There is a lot more to sustainable grass management than I discuss in this article, and there are resources out there to help you. Remember, continuous grazing allows weeds to grow where grass roots have been weakened, and a less dense leaf canopy allows sunlight to reach invading weeds. Know that weeds take advantage of disturbance, and even overgrazing slightly can give weeds the upper hand. A healthy stand of grass is your best defense against weeds!

     My uncle, an avid basketball player, has a great saying: “It’s all about the fundamentals.” Sustainable land management is based on knowing your resources, managing them properly, and continual evaluation to ensure you’re on the right track.

     I found that keeping to the fundamentals of limiting hours on pasture and adhering to a four inches stubble height have served me well. My grasses are thicker and more nutritious, my soils are increasing in organic matter (soil tests show an increase in organic matter of 2.8% in only five years!), and my pastures provide both forage and exercise for my horses.

     Finally, find a system that works for you, your animals, and your land. It takes knowledge, time and resources to develop a sustainable management system. It took me eight years to get to where I am, and I’m sure I’ll always be working on improvements. Remember that you’re working with a dynamic system and conditions change constantly. Get going, do what you can, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

 

Jennifer Mohler of Bridger Scientific, Inc., is a resource conservationist specializing in holistic and sustainable land management. Jennifer has worked with a diverse group of public, private, and non-profit entities to conserve natural resources by promoting sustainable practices and conservation minded weed and grazing management plans. As a horse specialist, she assists landowners in finding a balance between the horse’s needs with the land’s limitations and offers creative options to reduce costs, increase forage yields, manage weed populations, and improve animal health. You can reach Jennifer Mohler at 406-388-5668 or jenmohler@hughes.net.

 

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Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

 

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