Spring Into Action – Grazing Management Changes

Daffodils, lambs and slightly longer days quietly herald the promise of Spring. In the southern hemisphere, where I live in New Zealand, we are celebrating the end of winter, with the official Spring start on September 1st.

This time of year means a change to our horse management. We are lucky to be able to have our horses living a natural life where they free to roam, in a herd, and graze 24/7. As ideal as it seems, managing grazing becomes a priority in times of high grass growth. We act early, monitor and make changes as needed.

Spring grass flushes can very quickly provide too much tender sweet grass for the horses to glut on. For northern hemisphere readers, this applies to the Autumn flush that occurs in areas with hot, dry summers, once the rains begin.

On the grass…. forage, friends and freedom = happy herd.

So before we have a problem, we begin to reduce the time the horses spend on the pasture. Over the years, we have developed a track system and refined our process (outlined below). Our track system reduces access to pasture without restricting movement (a very important consideration for horse health).

At the moment, the horses are spending about 4 hours grazing on a paddock that is approximately 2ha (4 acres). They go on the paddock very early in the morning, before sugars have a chance to build in the plant, and come off again before lunch. They spend the next 20 hours in the track (aka the laneway) with access to high quality hay.

On the track with hay.

It doesn’t end there though. We will continue to make changes to the time spent grazing as the grass growth really speeds up. At some stage we will fence off sections destined for hay, and this will further reduce the area they have to graze. In previous years, we have restricted the grazing time to 1-2 hours/day. Always supplementing with hay on the track.

To guide us, we monitor three main things: 1) the growth rate of the grass, 2) the output (manure) from each horse, and 3) the horses’ condition.

Grass growth is the earliest sign and most critical to monitor. We gauge the grass growth in areas where there isn’t stock grazing. This way it is clear to see the amount of leaf. As I look out the window, I see that the lawn has grown since it was last mown a few weeks ago. If you monitor an area where stock is grazing, it is possible to be fooled into thinking that there has been no significant growth.

Since the horses are on the track, it is easy to monitor manure. We have to remove it daily, and five hooved friends produce a bit of manure! As we interact with the horses, it doesn’t take long for one of them to poo and we can see what each individually produces. We are on the lookout for changes to the manure. If instead of being well-formed horse apples, they are loose, cow-pat-like and foul smelling, we know we need to act. This is a sign of gut disturbances that come from an increase in sugars. Our personal challenge is to never see this but when we do, we act immediately as it is a sign that the horses are getting too much fresh grass.

Splat! This is a sign of too much fresh grass.

The horse’s condition is the slowest to change. By the time one notices that a horse has gained unwanted weight, it has already been overfeeding for some time. Best to learn from the experience and recognize that grazing restriction needed to happen earlier in the season. All is not lost though, take action to reduce the feed intake and increase movement to help keep your horse healthy.

Spring whilst bringing grazing management challenges also means better weather conditions for horse adventures. Increasing movement through activities like walking, riding and playing with your horses will help to reduce the effects of an increase in feed. I know I plan to put all that green grass energy into good use! Let me know in the comments how you manage your horses when there is too much grass.