Recently a group of us “horsey people” were chatting about managing our horses during the winter. We covered a wide variety of topics but one topic that got a lot of discussion was winter pasture management. If you are fortunate enough to have winter pasture for your horses, there are still management considerations — you can’t just “let them figure it out” as one of the participants suggested.
Management of your winter pasture begins now (or even began this summer). The “gold” in your pasture is the forage – the equine friendly edible plants in the field. This natural resource needs to be managed so that it provides good grazing for years to come and is not taken over by weeds or other plant growth unsuitable for horses.
Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development department has produced a very useful publication entitled Better Management of Your Horse’s Pasture. The publication is a wealth of information on pasture management year round. One of the topics it includes is when is the best time is to graze your horses based on the growth of the plants. The publication identifies factors to consider include the stage of growth in the plants, type of plants (grass or legume), time of day and the time of year. The goal is to get the best nutritional value without impacting the ability of the plants to re-grow. The composition of your grazing pasture is a big factor — the ideal is a mix of grasses and legumes which will allow your pasture to tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions and still provide good grazing.
So, given this information, how does this help up manage our winter pasture? Our goal is to provide grazing through the winter but still have enough left for re-growth in the spring. Horses are selective grazers. They choose the plants to eat based on what tastes good to them and what is available. Their preference is for younger plants. They will graze right down to the ground in these preferred areas — if this is allowed to continue then the favorite areas may not be able to recover in the spring and other, less palatable plants may invade. Ideally, you would like to leave three to four inches of grass so that re-growth will happen in those places.
Additionally, horses will generally not eat where they defecate so even if there is “good grass” in that location, it is not utilized. To maintain our grazing pasture, one proven practice is rotational grazing which allows us to control where the grazing is occurring and for how long. This allows the pasture to “rest” and growth to occur if it is a growing time of year. Another management technique is to confine the horses to a “sacrifice” area during critical periods.
These areas are places where you have no expectations of grass growing. Horses in these sacrifice areas will have to be fed daily and have access to a good water supply. If you allow your horses to overgraze your pasture, you may do irreparable damage and lose the very resource you were trying to maintain.
Another option you have is to seed your pastureland with higher producing grains and legumes. I have used a seed mixture commercially available that has a good mixture of grass and legumes and is designed to be put out in the fall and will produce growth in the spring. I had not tried this technique before but, last fall, did my seeding and this spring and summer was rewarded with excellent growth and grass coverage. I will be expanding my seeding shortly and doing more of my horse pasture.
You may need to fertilize and/or do specific weed control. Horses cannot be on the pasture when fertilizer and weed control products are being used so you must factor this in to your usage of the pasture.