Sunday, June 12, 2011

Horse pasture basics

Getting the most out of your pastures is key to saving money and maintaining equine health.

Start by counting the number of animals you have and the amount of pasture available, said Dan Undersander, UW-Extension forage agronomist.

"If you're really thinking about managing your pastures for your horses, our recommendation is to have two to four acres per 1,000 pounds of horse," Undersander said. "If you have less (land) than that, the horses trample too much of the grass and they'll develop lanes in the paddock and you're likely to have erosion."

In many cases, landowners have more land than their horses need. If the horses have access to more than they need, the pasture can become overgrown. Weeds and brush grow and animals may not have quality pastures.

Matching the pasture base to the number of animals at the 1,000 pounds per 2- to 4-acre stocking rate balances the growth of the grass to what's used by the horses. Pasture grasses with a legume mix such as clover and a managed stocking rate can almost eliminate the need for grain and purchased hay during the growing season, Undersander said.

"A horse eats about 2 to 2.5 percent of its body weight per day. So a 1,000 pound horse will eat 20 to 25 pounds of dry matter per day. We have to recognize the pastures are lush and generally 80 percent water, so an animal has to eat about 100 pounds of green, fresh grass to get 20 pounds of forage dry matter," he said.

Undersander added that pastures, especially in the spring, are lush and high in energy and nutrients. Crude protein can run as high as 30 percent in a good quality grass pasture and is highly digestible.

"Pasture can be more than what the horse needs," Undersander said. "Unless you have a very hardworking horse, like a racehorse or a cutting horse (or) something like that - frankly, as long as there's pasture out there there's probably sufficient energy and protein for the horse."

Undersander said horse owners should think of their pastures as a "concentrate," not just hay. People tend to underestimate the nutritional value of grass pasture and continue to feed their horses grain when they don't need to.

"In fact, the pasture should substitute for concentrates. I have seen horses founder on pasture because the pasture is too rich. Until the grass is about 6 inches tall, think of it as a concentrate, not hay. It's good to continue to offer dry hay when you have lush pasture," he said.

Unlike cows, which stop grazing for periods of time to ruminate, horses tend to graze more continuously. Horses are selective grazers, meaning they will go after the pasture plants they like first. Selective grazing is what causes pastures to become rough, with spots or tall, unused grass in some places and other areas grazed to the ground, according to Kevin H. Kline, University of Illinois Extension animal scientist.

Kline suggested clipping pastures to maintain even growth and to control weeds. Horse owners also may consider managing grazing patterns with creative fencing and animal rotations. Because horses won't graze in areas where they have defecated, dragging or light harrowing can help break down manure in the pasture. The best time to harrow a pasture is during the hottest, driest part of the summer to kill potential parasites.

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