Why do so many pastures along the Front Range of Colorado look like dusty weed patches that a field mouse would have to pack a lunch to get across?
Inexplicably many horse owners use their valuable pasture land as one huge, vegetation-free corral. Usually one fence line runs around the outside of the property, and horses are free to graze all day and all night on the same land. Problem is, horses allowed to roam over a small pasture will destroy it in less than one growing season. Small acreages cannot support continual grazing, even with irrigation and even when horses are given supplemental feedings of hay and grain, and overgrazing destroys the nutritive value of the pasture.
With careful management, however, it is possible to keep horses on small acreages and still have a nutritious, green pasture. Pasture management is an easy, logical and cost-efficient way to maintain grassland productivity.
An important first step is to build a corral for horses. They do not need to graze 24 hours a day, and in fact, unlimited grazing can lead to overweight horses with tendencies toward founder and insulin resistance. Feed horses hay inside the corral, turn them out to graze for limited periods each day, and simply confine them to the corral when not riding or exercising them. Spread hay around the corral to simulate grazing and/or invest in slow feeders to keep horses occupied and happy inside the corral.
Pasture rotation is the best method for keeping good grass cover on the land. Rotation requires dividing the pasture into smaller areas with interior or drift fences. Each small pasture, then, can be grazed in sequence or rotated. Interior fences can be permanent or temporary.
Rotation requires that horses (and other grazing animals) are never allowed to graze continuously in any one field; they are allowed to graze intensively for a short period and then moved to another field. After the grazers are moved, the previously grazed area is watered, rested and allowed to recover until its next turn to be grazed.
The recovery period allowed between rotations depends on the size and number of fields, number of stock, types of grasses, and availability of water. If irrigation water is available, each area can be grazed more often because it recovers quickly. Rotation grazing also works on dryland pastures but requires a longer recovery period with less moisture being available.
Control noxious weeds that invade pasture areas. Weeds compete with forage and may even injure stock or wildlife. Examples of such undesirable plants include leafy spurge, knappweed, foxtail and thistle.
As added incentive for pasture management, property owners can enjoy the many birds and other wildlife that will be attracted to land with diverse and nutritious plant cover. Finally, with healthy pasture the property will be more valuable, and less supplemental feed will need to be purchased for horses and other stock.