Rotational Grazing for Horses

Grazing Management

Grazing management allows for maximizing pasture use and nutrient availability. The average horse will graze continuously for a few hours, rest, and then continue eating. Horses are selective grazers, or they prefer young, immature plants and will graze some areas down to the bare ground. In other areas of the pasture, they will allow the plants to grow to maturity. Mature plants have lower palatability and nutrient availability. By utilizing management techniques, the quality of the pasture the horse consumes can be enhanced.

Continuous grazing is the most common form of grazing (figure 1), which consists of a group of animals having continual access to an area of land over a set period. If the area is small, limit grazing can be used to decrease the amount of time a horse has to eat. Thus, the pasture plants will last for a more extended period.

Continuous grazing pasture
Figure 1. Continuous grazing. Animals access the total area. Paddock = Sacrifice area, S = Shelter, W = Water

Rotational grazing is also a form of limit grazing. Rotational grazing uses recurring periods of grazing and rest among two or more paddocks or pastures. The rest allows pasture plants to benefit with more growth and vigor, and the forage supply tends to be more nutritious. Even small parcels of land can be divided into two or more regions to maximize plant growth.

Each pasture should be large enough to allow all the forage to be grazed in 7 to 14 days. Plants should be eaten to a height of not less than two inches tall, or stress occurs on the pasture plant. Move horses to the next paddock to graze. If the pasture can't be eaten to the recommended height, it can be mowed or made into hay. If not mowed to a uniform height, other plants may shade out desired ones. Following the 7-14 days grazing period, the field should have about a month's rest for forage growth before horses are rotated back. While the area is empty, break up manure piles by dragging a chain link or spike tooth harrow over the pasture.

For rotational grazing, assess the land to determine how it can best be split into smaller grazing areas. Design the space to contain a sacrifice paddock, which is an area where horses can be placed in periods of excessive rainfall, extended drought, or other times during which the horse presence on the regular paddocks could cause plant or soil damage. Locate the sacrifice area with ready access to water and accessibility for supplemental feeding. Within this area, a shelter can be provided. Some guidelines are listed below.

Guidelines for designing paddocks

  • Grazing movement is often in a circular pattern
  • Remote areas in long, narrow paddocks are not used efficiently
  • Irregularly shaped paddocks have less uniform use and are more difficult to clip or harvest hay
  • Paddocks should be similar in forage productivity, not necessarily the same size
  • To lessen erosion, avoid aligning paddocks from the top of a hill to the bottom.

Examples of splitting pastures are shown in figure 2, figure 3, and figure 4. Fencing can either be permanent or temporary. Electric fences are commonly used to set up a rotational grazing system. Tips for using electric fencing are listed below.

Rotational four pastures system
Figure 2. Rotational grazing - 4 pastures. 7-10 days grazing and 21-30 days rest. Paddock = Sacrifice area, S = Shelter, W = Water
Irregular grazing system
Figure 3. Rotational grazing - Irregular 5 pastures. Paddock = Sacrifice area, S = Shelter, W = Water
Intensive grazing system
Figure 4. Rotational grazing - 8 pastures. Paddock = Sacrifice area, S = Shelter, W = Water

Electric fencing tips

  • Install a surge protector
  • Use adequate ground rods (three feet per one joule of output).
  • Make good connections – wire nuts, clamps or compression sleeves where needed
  • Use a fence tester to check the power
  • Bury insulated wire under gate openings
  • Use visible gates

Do not use an underpowered energizer, low-quality materials, turn out untrained animals, use low-quality insulators, or crowd the area where horses may run through the electric fence.