*My top three favorite pasture management resources are at the bottom!
Take care of your grass and it will take care of your horse. For those of us lucky enough to have any amount of pasture, it can be stressful knowing when to prioritize your horse or to prioritize the grass- and yes, there are indeed times when the health of your grass is more important if you want grass next year. It's challenging, but it's also a critically important balancing act that must be maintained in order to have grass available to graze year after year. This gets more critical as the density of horses increases per acre! Of course, we'd love to see our horses turned out 24/7 on the greenest of pasture lawns, but those grass plants must be honored, cherished, and loved equally in order to nourish your horse. Ok, maybe not loved "as much" as your horse, but you get the picture. If you would like your pasture to nourish your horse with more than just entertainment value, you must become equal parts horse owner and grass farmer.
Pasture is like a bank account; if you keep putting value into it, it will sustain your horses long term. Adding value to your pasture can come in the form of fertilizer, mowing, and the all-important REST. Pasture rest can be achieved with strip grazing, seasonal rotation, and limited grazing during critical growth or stressful weather patterns (i.e. spring/fall, heavy rain, freeze, ect). However, if your horses continue to withdraw more than you put in than the value of that pasture will decline over time until all that is left is dirt and weeds. Many pastures in my neighborhood have turned into eye sores due to overgrazing. Many horse owners don't recognize it as it's happening, because the process of over grazing can take years. However, if you find yourself spraying for more and more weeds every year, you can be certain that the grass plants have the disadvantage.
I'm super lucky to have about 3.75 total acres of pasture for my herd of four. Due to that 1:1 ratio, that pasture requires a tremendous amount of time, money, and maintenance to sustain four large herbivores. There was a lot of dry lotting in the fall so that my cool season grass plants could put their energy into root growth. I wanted those plants to have good energy reserves for the cold winter, so I made sure not to graze the grass down below 3 inches wherever possible. There are always going to be those areas in the field where the horses return over and over again for new growth. You can fence those areas off easily with temporary fencing. There was also a lot of dry lot time while the grass plants were waking up from winter dormancy- even before the spring growth ramped up. In preparation for heavy summer grazing, we spread composted manure, fertilized according to a soil test, and waited some more. And all that work has paid off in super shiny, plump horses! They will be able to enjoy this green grass far into winter.
At no time is the theory of equestrian grass farmer more important than when managing horses at risk for laminitis. It will come as a shocker to many horse owners, but a lot of laminitis cases are due to poor pasture maintenance. We like to blame the pelleted stuff, but for the majority of horses with metabolic syndrome or other sugar start sensitivities, the greatest risk of foundering lies in the overgrazed pasture. This is due to natural growth cycles of the plant and that plant's biological mechanisms for survival. Know the plant, know how to manage the horse. It is beyond the scope of this short article to launch into a plant biology lesson, but know this one thing; when grasses are stressed out, they accumulate non-structural carbohydrates that your horse can access. Happy, stress-free grass plants assimilate those NSCs into plant material and they do not accumulate. Again....take care of the plant, and you will take care of your horse!
***Now for my top three favorite pasture management resources!
1. County Extension Office: Absolutely top of the list is your county's extension service. Maybe 1 out of 50 horse owners that I talk to know that this service is available to them, but its already paid by their tax dollars. Here is a link to find your local extension service. Call up their office and ask for a) forage specialist, b) pasture management specialist, c) crop, soil and fertilizer specialist. Local county extension agents are hired by your state's land grant university system to be the "boots on the ground" resource that disseminates new information and technologies discovered by research! A specialist may be able to come out to your farm and give you ideas or suggest the right fertilizer. Also, most of them loan out forage or soil probes for sampling. Did I mention it's all free!?!
a. University of Minnesota Extension: A good example of online extension resources is University of Minnesota. Check out their website HERE.
b. If you're on the East Coast, Penn State has some good stuff too! LINK HERE.
c. If you really want to get down and dirty about pasture management, check out Oregon State University's Online Course (2-4 hours + supplemental material). It is ruminant focused (cattle, goats), but you will gain a ton of valuable information about becoming a better grass farmer.
2. Safer Grass Dot Org: If you have horse(s) at risk for laminitis, I would highly suggest safergrass.org. Katy Watts has compiled a very helpful directory of articles to help you understand and manage non-structural carbohydrates.
3. Gallagher Fencing Systems: These guys are big on pasture management education and have lots of good stuff. Start with THIS ARTICLE HERE. I personally use the Gallagher TurboWire on their heavy duty reels to cross fence my pasture throughout the summer. The outer perimeter of the pastures is the New Zealand style poly-coated wire which is highly visible, safe for horses and wildlife, and easy to maintain over time.