Find the recipe for success by understanding what nutritional value your horse requires and what your pasture provides.
There is no magic recipe for the perfect grass and perfect management for every horse. The important things to understand are the needs of your horse, the needs of your pasture and where they connect. Keep in mind these important variables:
- Types of foliage available to you
- Quality of available forage
- Quantity of forage your horse requires
- Condition and workload of your horse
- Resources of the landowner
How Much Grass Can One Horse Eat?
One of the basics of equine nutrition is quality forage. Whether it’s hay, pasture grass or a combination of both, it is good to known just how much your horse needs to get the nutritional content he requires. Experts recommend that a horse should get 1.5 percent to 2 percent of his body weight every day in forage. For example, a 1,000-pound horse needs 15 to 20 pounds of forage daily.
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Horse people sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to grazing. It is not unusual to see overgrazed pastures on horse farms. Just as a horse will over-eat grain if given the opportunity, he will graze all day whether he is on full feed or not.
The best thing to do when you have small pastures is limit horses’ time on pastures. If you have large pastures or live where rainfall and forage production is plentiful, engage the assistance of an expert, such as a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, to estimate the amount of forage available in the pasture.
Region by Region
The number of acres required to sustain a horse varies across the United States. In the semiarid West, it is not unusual for the forage requirement for one horse to be numerous acres per year. For example, on native rangeland in good condition in the Texas Panhandle, you need 35 acres to sustain an average horse for a year. In the Southwest desert, that number may be 200 acres, while on the lush pastures of Kentucky, it might be less than five acres.
Quantity of forage available is only half the equation. Quality of that forage is the rest of the story. In semiarid climates, the native forage dries quite well, retaining its nutritive value through the winter months. This is not the case in areas where precipitation is plentiful and the forage naturally contains much more water.
The most important thing to know is what type of forage is available in your area. You cannot manage the land if you do not know the plants. It’s like knowing the alphabet so you can speak the language.
On native rangeland, a good rule of thumb is to take half and leave half. This refers to the quantity of forage removed from the pasture. A way to visually estimate when the rangeland has been grazed enough is through enclosures.
Exclosures are small wire cages in the pasture. You can build them with three T-posts placed in a triangle approximately three feet apart with a length of woven wire attached in a roughly circular shape.
You can easily see how much grass would be in the area without grazing compared to what the grazed area looks like. At the end of the growing season, you want to see 25 percent of the key forage species putting out seed heads. If no seed heads are visible, the land has probably been grazed too hard.
These rules are not applicable to pastures planted with improved grasses like Bermuda grass, timothy and brome. However, the same concepts are useful in estimating how much grazing is too much.
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Forage in improved pastures is often fertilized with nitrogen and phosphorus. Stocking rates can be much higher, and the pastures receive a lot of tender, loving care compared to rangeland. Weeds are controlled through herbicides, and in many cases, supplemental water may be available to irrigate the forage.
Bermuda grass is common in the Southwest but requires irrigation in many areas. It also requires frequent fertilization. In the Western states, less improved pasture is available, due primarily to the limited precipitation. It is not unusual to find pastures planted with brome grasses and varieties of wheat grass (not wheat, but wheat grasses that are native plants).
Through the Midwest and Eastern states, there are many options for pastures, but the most common are bluegrasses, brome grasses and timothy. Most require fertilization.
Improved pastures require more intensive management: fertilization, rotational grazing and weed control. Rotational grazing can be achieved on a small scale with the use of an electric fence. The idea is to give some of the pasture rest or a break from grazing and concentrate the horses on a smaller portion of the pasture with frequent rotation.
Evaluation and Extra Help
Your county extension agent or USDA Natural Resources Conservation representative can help with estimating a proper stocking rate, quality and quantity of forage, and the best way to use your pasture.
It might be wise to send forage samples for nutritional analysis to help with pasture management and to make sure the forage is providing proper nutrition for your horse. These local experts are equipped to offer advice specific to your area.
Most horses need supplemental feed in addition to what is available to graze, whether it is native rangeland or improved pasture. Conditions vary across the United States, so there is no exact recipe for success.
Take advantage of your local experts to become familiar with the condition of your pasture and use monitoring tools at home such as grazing exclosures to make the most out of your horse pastures.
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