From the moment we bought our little farm, we’ve been puzzling over one of the toughest challenges horsekeepers face – how to ensure that our charges would have delicious, nutritious grass to eat all throughout the summer and fall. There are a few reasons, of course, for working so hard to make this happen. One is Sunny’s weight (or lack thereof). Since I’ve owned her, she’s tended toward the skinnie-minnie side, and I knew that the longer she could have good grass, the better chance we’d have of starting off next winter with her in good condition. The other driving force behind our ambitious pasture-management plan was that we did not want to feed (and therefore pay for) hay all summer if we didn’t have to.
We started out with about six acres of hay fields on the property, pre-barn-building. We wanted to try to get some of our own hay off the fields this year, so we’ve left the three-acre back field and the one-acre side field alone. Our next door neighbour/farmer-extraordinaire fertilized those fields for us in the spring, and he’ll hay them this month.
The two and a half acre front field has become a little horsey haven for Sunny and Stella. It houses their shedrow barn with in/out stalls, the winter (sacrifice) paddock with mud-proof pad, the riding ring, and the septic field. The rest of it we divided into five grass paddocks, with permanent fencing all around the outside, a corridor down the middle, and step-in temporary fencing for divisions. In the fall, once the grass has stopped growing, we’ll take out the step-ins to make one large pasture for them to play in until the snow flies. Thanks to the corridor, and strategically placed gates, the horses can get from any paddock back to their shelter whenever they like.
We started turning Sunny and Stella out on grass mid-May. We began with just fifteen minutes, and added an additional fifteen minutes a day to ensure we gave their digestive systems plenty of time to accustom themselves to their new food source. Then, at the end of May, the big day arrived. The horses began full time turnout on grass.
Since then, they’ve been spending anywhere from four to ten days on each paddock (depending on the size of the paddock as well as their grazing habits and how much rain we’re having). As soon as we notice that they’re eating the grass down below three inches, or when the paddock starts to look “weedy”, we close it off and move them to the next. Then we mow the recently-vacated paddock down to an even level. This keeps the weeds under control and allows the grass to grow in a little thicker and more lush for next time. Each paddock ends up getting about 4 weeks of growing time between uses, so unless we have an unusually dry summer, we should have lovely grass right through to the fall.
What surprised us the most was how the horses (under) utilized the paddocks. They are very fussy about what they’ll eat and what they won’t, which is why allowing them to graze on the whole field all at once wouldn’t have worked for us. Left to their own devices, they will eat the good grass right down to the dirt, and studiously avoid the grass they don’t like (read: weeds), so our entire field would have ended up an ugly mixture of overgrazed wasteland and tall patches of weeds. Containing them in smaller areas, and moving them frequently is what allows the grass time to grow back up, since once it’s grazed down to the ground, it won’t grow again this season.
We have just completed our first full rotation of all paddocks. Yesterday, the horses went back into Paddock 1, which has grown right back up to where it was their first time out on it. Paddock 2 looks even better (we actually didn’t mow paddock 1 after its first round, and the difference between it and paddock 2, which did get mown after use, is quite remarkable). Paddock 3 is growing up nice and lush, with very few weeds, and paddock 4 is coming along nicely as well. And the added bonus? We haven’t had to feed a stitch of hay since the end of May, and skinnie-minnie-Sunny has been gaining weight, to the point that we’ve been able to eliminate almost all of her grain. Looks like our plan is working!