SSE Grazing Strategies
S for Horse Pastures
SK Warren, PhD, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida
Lori K. Warren, PhD, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida
Many horse pastures in Florida, particularly small
pastures, suffer from overgrazing. Repeated heavy
grazing that removes too much leaf material weakens
plant root structure making it difficult for plants to
recover. As a result, less forage is available for
grazing and pastures are vulnerable to weed invasion
Horse owners have several options for managing the
grazing of horses. Some grazing strategies are better
at maintaining pasture ground cover and reducing the
risk of overgrazing than others. Grazing strategies
Continuous (season-long) grazing
Limited turnout time
Continuous (or season-long) grazing
When horses have access to pasture 24 hours a day, 7
days a week, for the whole grazing season (or even
365 days a year), they are being managed under a
continuous (or season-long) grazing system.
Unfortunately, this grazing strategy often results in
overgrazing, particularly on smaller acreages.
Continuous access to pasture allows horses to be very
selective. Horses repeatedly graze the best-tasting
plants, stressing them beyond their ability to survive.
Plants are never given a rest or allowed to recover
from grazing. Not surprisingly, under this type of
grazing management, once-lush pastures are soon
turned into dry lots where only weeds survive.
Unless large amounts of acreage are available, or
pastures are irrigated, continuous grazing is not
recommended for horse pastures in Florida.
Restricting grazing to only part of the year, and then
removing horses from pasture for the rest of the year,
is referred to as partial-season grazing.
For example, some horse owners take advantage of
the rapid plant growth in the spring and early
summer, when forage quality is also at its highest, to
graze their horses. When sufficient forage has been
grazed, horses are moved off the pasture and hand-
fed hay in a stall or small dry lot. Horses are not
returned to the pasture until next spring.
Two Essential Rules of Grazing
1) Avoid grazing until plants have reached an average
height of 6 to 8 inches.
2) Remove horses and rest pastures when plants have
been grazed down to 3 to 4 inches.
By comparison, horse owners that spend their
summer traveling to shows, rodeos and other events
may choose to defer grazing over the spring and
summer while they are gone. When their activities
slow down in late summer and fall, they can turn
their horses out to pasture to graze forage that has
been stockpiled (saved back) over the summer.
Allowing access to pasture for only a portion of the
grazing season reduces the risk of overgrazing as
long as horses are denied access until the grass is
ready (6 to 8 inches high) and removed from the
pasture when sufficient grazing has taken place (3 to
4 inches high).
Limited Turnout Time
Allowing horses daily access to pasture for shorter
periods (2-hour to 12-hours per day) is referred to as
Limited Turnout Time. This grazing strategy is ideal
for horses managed on small properties, particularly
operations that house more horses than their pastures
can support with longer periods of grazing.
Turnout to pasture provides not only exercise, but
may also provide significant savings in feed costs in
the long-term, even if horses are only turned out for 1
- 2 hours per day. Table 1 shows how much hay can
be replaced by each hour of grazing.
As with all grazing strategies, turnout can commence
when grass has achieved a height of 6 to 8 inches,
and should cease when grass has been grazed down
to 3 to 4 inches.
Tabl 1: Amoun of ha thtcnberpae
Season Grass hay
Spring 2.75 Ibs 2.25 Ibs
Summer 1.75 Ibs 1.25 Ibs
Create and Use a Sacrifice Area
A "sacrifice area" is a dry lot, pen, corral, or stall run where
horses can be housed and hand-fed whenever pastures
need a rest from grazing. In essence, this area is
"sacrificed" to spare your pasture from overgrazing and
hoof damage at critical times.
.cft tk .2 - .. .
water area --.. ,,,,
pasture 1 \
\ pasture 2
Dividing a pasture into smaller "cells" and rotating
the use of each cell is referred to as Rotational
Grazing (Figure 1). Even small (1 2 acre) pastures
can be effectively set up as a rotational system.
Using this grazing strategy, horses are allowed access
to one cell at a time. When forage has been grazed
down to 3 4 inches, horses can be rotated into the
next cell. The previously grazed cell is then allowed
to rest and recover. If sufficient regrowth occurs (6 -
8"), horses can be returned to a cell for more grazing.
With sufficient moisture in the form of rain or
irrigation, regrowth may take 15 to 30 days in the
spring and early summer. In contrast, regrowth will
take longer in the heat of the summer and into fall.
The size and number of cells can vary based on
available acreage, the number of horses, the
productivity of the pasture, and how long the horses
will have residence in the cell. Ideally, each cell
should contain enough forage to sustain the grazing
horses for 4 to 7 days. Grazing for longer than 7 days
may increase damage due to hoof tread, particularly
near water and salt sources. Horse owners using
rotational grazing for the first time will have to
experiment with the size and number of their cells.
Be flexible! Following a strict calendar of entrance
and exit dates should be avoided. Instead, monitor the
grazing progress and remove horses to another cell
(or sacrifice area) when it's appropriate.
Confining horses to a smaller area of the pasture
eliminates selective grazing, resulting in more
complete utilization of the available forage. In
addition, providing rest periods from grazing allows
the grass to recover, which maintains desirable
species and makes plants more competitive with
weeds. Over time, the amount and quality of the
forage growing in the pasture increases, which can
potentially allow a greater number of horses to be
supported by the same acreage. Rotational grazing
can also improve the effectiveness of partial-season
and Limited Turnout grazing systems.