Updated: Oct 9, 2021
You have a busy schedule as an equestrian. It’s easy to forget about pasture management. But creating a grazing schedule is just as important as farrier appointments and vet checks. Overgrazing can lead to parasite infestations despite regular deworming. Your horse will refuse to eat any of your pasture because he instinctively knows it will give him worms. However, rotational grazing provides an excellent solution to parasite problems. The techniques that grass fed ranchers and shepherds have used for decades are easy to incorporate into your farm’s daily chores.
What exactly is overgrazing?
It means that you are not letting the pasture rest. Just as you and your horse need rest, so do the plants and microbes that live in your fields. But removing your horse from a paddock for 12 hours is not long enough. Most experts recommend resting a pasture for at least 60 days. This allows the grass to regrow. But more importantly, it allows rain, sun, insects and fungi to begin their magical process of melting manure into nutrients for the soil. As the grass grows thicker and deeper, shading the soil, the beneficial microbes and earthworms have a healthier habitat. Farmers call this the “thatch” layer. Thatch is critical to preserving microbial diversity, preventing erosion and nutrient loss. It also helps germinate new grass every season, reducing the cost of seeding.
Here are some obvious signs of overgrazing: thick grass patches around manure (horses know not to eat this larva-ridden grass), super short grass, compacted soil, muddy soil, and a pasture of mostly weeds. Ideal pastures have thick grass at least 8 inches high when horses are turned out. This ensures that the animals won’t eat the parasite larva that lingers close to the soil. The horses will also enjoy this tasty, nutrient rich forage.
Parasites and the Pasture
The parasite life cycle as it relates to pasture management is as follows: horse eats larvae on grass blades, larvae moves around in horse’s digestive system, larvae matures into adult then feeds, breeds, and lays eggs that are then passed via the horse’s dung. Eggs hatch into larva and the cycle begins again. An easy solution, therefore, is to simply remove the horse from the equation. If the horse is not present for 4 weeks after the eggs hatch, the larva will die.
Depending on how large the pasture is and your turnout schedule, horses may need to be moved in less than a week. Your observation is important in this phase. If two weeks go by and the field looks like a golf course, mowed low to the ground, you should move your horses right away to prevent grass damage and parasite infection. Speaking of mowing, many farmers have success “mulching” their fields with a bush hog before winter. The tall grasses and weeds that the horses avoided all year will be mowed down thus destroying the cozy winter weed habitat for parasites.
How does this directly affect your horse?
The manure piles will compost naturally and the fly population will shrink. The parasite eggs and larvae will be host-less and end up being digested by nematodes or dried in the sunshine. Your horse will munch all day on clean, tasty grass and you won’t need to buy so much hay. He’ll have healthy teeth, need less grooming (those mud puddles will disappear), have fewer hoof problems and a more diverse microbiome (say goodbye to those expensive probiotic supplements). Your horse is designed to graze all day long, and doing so can reverse health and behavioral problems.
Management and Fencing Tips
Most equestrian facilities already have multiple grazing paddocks. The problem is that they always have horses in them instead of strategically limiting use. If you manage a barn, you know it’s hard to get everyone on the same page sometimes. But if you let folks know that, for example, you want paddock #1 to rest for 2 months, you just need to post a reminder. Put up a friendly sign on the gate for that paddock to let your barn mates know the dates when that paddock is closed.
For farms that have one huge grazing field, electric cross-fencing is necessary. Break up your field into 4 large “pizza slices” centered around your water trough/irrigation. If you have long irrigation hoses available (ie. 1 inch polypipe) and can move your water trough easily, you can break up your field into smaller square paddocks and move them more frequently. Invest $100-200 in temporary “pig tail” fence posts every 15-20 feet. Purchase 1-2 polybraid reels to quickly and easily change temporary paddocks. The best way to electrify your polybraid is to plug it into an outlet with AC/DC energizer, however solar energizers work great too. You’ll need to train your horses on the new system, which can be time consuming. They need to be supervised in their first few encounters with getting shocked to make sure they don’t destroy the fence or otherwise freak out. But after they respect the hot wire, you’ll have a great grass management tool.
Let it Grow
The biggest misconception horse property owners make is that they think long grass is unattractive. In the suburbs, long grass can hurt your curb appeal. But on a farm that houses livestock, grass is money. All of that time, money and fossil fuel you spend tediously mowing and weed wacking your pastures is not necessary. Your horse pasture shouldn’t look like a golf course. It should look like a hay field. The more grass your horse consumes, the less hay you need to buy. The simple step of letting your fields rest and grow will save you a lot of money every year. You need to stop equating short, dry and nubby grass with tidiness.
Know Your Grass
You might find that your farm has many different types of grass. Learn about the best grasses for horses that grow in your region for each season. Walk around your pasture and take pictures of as many different types of grass and weeds growing in your field. Then, go to your local feed and seed, find an old hay farmer and ask him to identify each type of grass for you. Or call your local extension agent. The point is this: know your grass. If you have timothy grass growing naturally in your fields, you might decide to let it flower and go to seed so you can thicken your thatch layer for next year. In order to do that, you need to let your pasture rest for several months. Learn what your mediocre and harmful grasses are and what weeds are growing that are beneficial, benign or harmful. There’s a ton of literature about what types of grasses should be in horse pastures. Decide what varieties you’d like to encourage in your field. Diversity is key! Get as many beneficial perennial varieties of grass in that field as you can.
In the past, horse owners and farmers believed that the chemical dewormers were enough to keep their animals healthy. Unfortunately, the overuse of these drugs has led to parasite resistance in horses, sheep, cattle, goats and more. But you can take control of your horse’s health through the simple practice of pasture management. Your horse will thank you, your bills will be lower and you’ll be stewarding your land in a way that benefits nature.
If you find yourself in a dilemma, let us know! We love helping new farmers. Check out our farm consulting page.