Question: I’ve heard conflicting recommendations on when to start grazing my horses. Is April 1st too early to start grazing?
Answer: Spring grazing should be introduced slowly and delayed until grasses reach 6 to 8″ to optimize both the health of the horse and pasture. Calendar date is not important as weather conditions and grass growth can very greatly from year to year.
When pastures reach 6 to 8″, begin grazing for 15 minutes, increasing the grazing time each day by 15 minutes until 4 to 5 hours of consecutive grazing is reached. After that, unrestricted or continuous grazing can resume.
We also recommend feeding horses their normal hay diet before turning them out to pasture during the first several grazing events of the year. This strategy should help avoid rapid intake of pasture grasses.
Even though hay and pasture are both forms of forages, there are significant differences. A gradual change from one feedstuff to another provides enough time for the microbial populations to adjust, reducing the chance of colic and laminitis.
This article is reprinted with permission from Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.
Introducing horses to growing pasture is a welcome event each year, yet must be approached with caution. Introducing the horses to pasture too soon in the season or for too long a time period can be bad for both the pasture and the horses.
The following are some guidelines to consider:
- Do not turn the horses out on pastures too early. Grass needs time to recover from the stress of winter and should be allowed to re-grow to 6 to 8 inches in height, depending on the species, to allow roots to grow and to store some energy before being grazed.
- Horses should be fed hay before going out on pasture the first time. Do not turn them out with empty stomachs!
- Initial grazing should be limited to 15 to 20 minutes and gradually increased each day by 15 minutes until the horses are out for about 4 or 5 hours, at which time they can be allowed unrestricted time.
- If horses are allowed too much initial grazing time, the risk of digestive disturbance is increased as it takes the microflora in the gut some time to adjust to the difference in forage source.
- Do NOT overgraze! Pastures should not be grazed to below 3-4 inches in grass length or you will wind up with a dirt lot fairly quickly. Some weeds are also hardier than most grasses, so if pastures are over grazed, weeds will become more prevalent.
- Remember that cool season grasses growing very rapidly can be high in plant sugars (fructans), so caution is in order.
- Grazing muzzles might be an option for helping reduce rapid intake.
Proper introduction of horses back on pasture needs to be managed for the health of the horses and the health of the pastures!