When to Start Spring Grazing

It is tempting to turn horses out into spring pastures at the first sight of green grass, especially after a long winter. However, spring grazing should be introduced slowly and delayed until grasses reach 6 to 8″ to optimize both the health of the horse and pasture. When horse pastures reach 6 to 8″, begin grazing for 15 minutes, increasing the grazing time each day by 15 minutes until 5 hours of consecutive grazing is reached. After that, unrestricted grazing can occur.

Why is this recommendation so important? Even though hay and pasture are both forms of forages, there are significant differences. Dried hay is approximately 15% moisture compared to fresh pasture that is 85% moisture. The horse is a hind-gut, fermenting herbivore that relies extensively on the microbes present in its gastrointestinal tract to be able to process forages. The microbes are a mix of different organisms that work together to the benefit of the horse. If the feedstuffs the microbes are utilizing change suddenly, there may be too little time for the microbial populations to adjust to the change. Instead, large numbers of them die, while others flourish, setting up a situation where toxins may be absorbed by the horse, resulting in digestive dysfunction and possibly colic. A gradual change from one feedstuff to another provides enough time for the microbial populations to adjust.

Additionally, pasture grasses need sufficient growth before grazing is allowed. Photosynthesis (the process of converting solar energy to chemical energy) occurs mainly within the leaves of plants. If the leaves are grazed too early (prior to 6″ tall) or too often, plants can lose vigor, competitiveness, and root structure due to the lack of photosynthetic ability. This will lead to eventual die back and overgrazed areas being replaced by undesirable plant species or weeds. Grazing should cease when forages have been grazed down to 3 to 4 inches. At this time, move horses to another paddock or a dry lot. Grazing can resume when grasses regrow to 6 to 8″. On average, about 2 acres of well-managed pasture can provide the forage needs for one horse during the grazing season.

It is critical to slowly introduce horses to spring pastures. So, the following is worth repeating, when horse pastures reach 6 to 8″, begin grazing for 15 minutes, increasing the grazing time by 15 minutes each day until 5 hours of consecutive grazing is reached. Following this recommendation will help ensure both horse and pasture health.

Author and photo credit: Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota

Forage and Floods – After the Water Recedes

Forage and Floods 2017 has been a challenging year in many parts of the country with excess rain and some widespread flooding. Several of the potential impacts of flooding are forage issue that may remain long after the water has receded.

Potential Forage Hazards:

  1. Flood waters may deposit detrimental contaminants on pastures, fields and stored forage. Some of these hazards might include pesticides, dead animals, industrial waste, untreated sewage and silt.
  2. Forage harvested after being flooded may still have some of the contaminants present on the lower portion of the forage. Any debris washed into the field, if not removed prior to harvest, may be accidentally baled up in either round bales or square bales. Even clean silt clinging to the forage may increase the ash content of the forage.
  3. Stored forage, particularly round bales or the lower level of hay stacks may become saturated with moisture, leading to mold issues and potential organic matter decay.
  4. Organic matter that is baled into forage, particularly round bales, may create an opportunity for clostridium botulinum bacteria to multiply anaerobically as the organic matter decays. This bacteria produces the deadly botulism toxin, one of the most potent toxins produced in nature.

Recommendations:

  1. Clean and disinfect flooded facilities as soon as possible. Make certain structures are sound before entering to work on them.
  2. Remove debris from barnyards, pastures and fields. Unfortunately, no easy solution!
  3. Make certain the ground has dried enough to support vehicles before driving in flooded areas.
  4. If stacked hay or round bales have been soaked, do not feed the affected bales. If bales must be fed (i.e. emergency forage needs), monitor consumption closely and avoid spoiled areas. If in doubt, throw it out!
  5. If harvesting forage from fields that have been flooded and dried out, be very vigilant when mowing and conditioning the forage. You may have to wait a few extra days to allow plants to recover. If there is silt on the lower stem areas, consider leaving longer stubble. Local Agricultural Extension Educators may have specific recommendations for specific locations and for types of rakes that do a better job of reducing ash content.
  6. Be extra vigilant when feeding baled forages that have been harvested off of ground that has been flooded.
  7. You may want to soil test fields and pastures to see if lime or fertilization will be useful.

If rainfall patterns change, flooding may become more common. Extra vigilance and management may be required to keep horses healthy in these challenging conditions.

Useful Reference: Barnhart, Stephen K. “Summer Flooding of Hay Fields” Integrated Crop Management News, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, June 2008.

Additional pasture management resources can be found at the University of Minnesota Extension Horse Program website.

Grazing Muzzles – A Good Tool for Easy Keepers

Many of us are faced with the dilemma of an easy keeper – these horses seem to get fat just by looking at pasture, much less being turned out on it! We know we need to limit their intakes, but it feels cruel to lock them away from the green grass, especially when their more slender pasture-mates are able to graze for hours every day and not put on an ounce (I have a friend like that, and I work hard not to hold it against her!).

Grazing muzzles are a great way to limit your horse's intake on pasture

The health and well being of these easy keeping, plump horses and ponies can greatly benefit from a reduced caloric and controlled starch and sugar intake. Luckily, horse owners have a tool that can be utilized to help with this problem – grazing muzzles. Grazing muzzles allow horses to run, roam and feel like they are grazing all day, but still have their intakes reduced. The basic make up of the grazing muzzle is similar to a halter, usually with a piece of rubber affixed to it that fits over the mouth and has a small opening. This greatly reduces the amount of grass eaten and can help with weight control on those chubby horses and ponies.  

Additionally, it allows the horse to get the benefits of turnout, including socialization and exercise which can help alleviate some of the boredom related issues that may be found in horses that are kept in dry lot or stalled situations (weaving, cribbing, etc.).

Some key things to consider when using a grazing muzzle:

  • Does your muzzle fit the horse properly? Similar to proper halter fit, the muzzle shouldn’t be too tight or too loose.
  • Is your fencing safe for use with a muzzle? Think about catch points like stray wires, etc. that the muzzle could get caught on. Some basic changes or repairs to fencing may be required.
  • After you have turned your horse out with a muzzle, monitor water intakes. Horses can drink just fine with a muzzle on, but it may take some getting used to.

With the right management, grazing muzzles can be a wonderful tool to allow your horse the freedom of the pasture without adding extra pounds.