Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Grass is Greener

Kate, over at A Year with Horses , recently was discussing the grazing routine at her barn:
"[W]e used to do intensive rotational grazing on smaller pastures, about 1 acre plus or minus, with each of our two herds spending about a week on one of our 10 grazing pastures before moving to the next one. With larger herds - we've had as many as 17 horses on pasture although that's probably too many - this intensive grazing maximized grass growth and productivity and meant we had to feed much less hay over the grazing months. The problem we've been confronting lately is that we now have only 9 grazing horses - one herd of 4 [mares] and the other of 5 [geldings]."
"We've decided that we no longer want to maximize grass production, and want to significantly reduce labor, so we've moved to grazing each herd in a large, conjoined 5 or 6 acre pasture without rotation, but with frequent mowing to control weeds and improve the ability of the horses to graze all the areas of the pastures.... We're expecting some decline in grass quantity and richness, which will be a good outcome considering the girth of many of our horses, although there should be enough grass for the grazing season."

I kinda hi-jacked her post with a discussion of my quandary over whether or not to mow two of my pastures which have gotten quite lush:
"I'm trying to figure out my rotation, too. I have seven pastures: five between 1 1/2 and 2 acres, and two that are both 2 acres or better. When I had the horses is separate groups coming out of winter, I rotated them through five of the pastures. Now that they're all (6) together, I'm trying to let them eat down the last two pastures that got belly high in places. But they are all very rotund, so I daren't leave them out full time--I'm letting them out first thing in the morning for 3-4 hours, then again in the evening for 2-3.
I've been wondering if I should just mow it all down? But I'm afraid the cuttings would just smother the new grass underneath. (I even thought about asking the neighbor to cut and bale it, but I know he doesn't like haying smaller spaces.) What do you think?
" (Even 30-year-old RT is looking plenty plump!)
Kate's response, in part:
"I'd recommend mowing. It keeps down the weeds and allows the horses to graze more evenly, not just where the grass is short - our horses tend to graze one area excessively and others not at all as the grasses grow up and get more coarse."
I started last week with the herd on one of those pastures, but because it is so rich, I was only leaving them out for 3-4 hours in the morning (when sugar content of grass is lowest) and 2-3 hours in the evening (when it's starting to drop from afternoon high sugar production). They got pretty good at the routine, coming in when I caled (mostly--in the evening their daily supplement ration cushions the blow of leaving the pasture).
I now have them up to about ten hours, and am putting them out last thing before I go to bed, and bringing them in first thing in the morning. Mostly this is so I have them up at the barn during the day, so I can work with Beth, Maddie and Kate.
Mowing gives the advantage of more even growth, and therefore more even grazing patterns. If you look at this pasture it may seem to be green and growing.
And it patches. But the issue is that the horses tend to choose the more succulent grasses, and leave older, taller grass behind (think: the school child who eats his Twinkie and leaves the bologna sandwich).
So, although this looks lush...
...twenty feet away, where they've been eating the younger grass, it looks like this:
So I decided to take Kate's advice and mow. (She also directed me to a great resource at the site, where the question is posed: "Are you feeding your horse like a cow?"
Down the page a bit on Kate's blog are also a couple of links to Paradigm Farm's posts on nutrition for horses that provide excellent information.)

This pasture has had about three weeks or so to recover from the last time it was grazed, including irrigation last week. I have to fight my instinct to mow it "lawn short" and leave it closer to 4 or 5 inches. The well eaten parts are just growing back to about 3-4 inches, so it will be awhile (and probably one more round of irrigation) before I put the herd back on it.
The finished field. (You can still see the darker "roughs" on either side.)
I'll do one of the 7 fields every day or so as they dry out from this last round of irrigation, ending with the 2 tallest fields, that the guys/gals are working on right now. (I also invited my neighbor to bring her sheep down if she wants them to work on the deepest pasture.)

On other fronts, my baby trees are doing as well as can be expected, at the hands of someone with brown thumbs.
These are two of the Austrian Pines, with a Rocky Mountain Juniper sandwiched in between. Survival on the pines was less than 50%; the junipers did a little better over the winter. The ones that did survive seem to be doing well now. Even a few that I didn't think were going to make it are turning a little green around the edges, so we'll see if they can build enough vigor to make it through next winter.
Of the deciduous trees and shrubs, the poplars are mostly going gang-busters. A few just seemed to disappear, so I fear some critter decided they were tasty, although one stretch of about 30 seedlings on the least protected edge of the property may have simply snapped off in the winter wind. Of the other shrubs, again, only about 50-60% survived, often according to species. It's a little frustrating.
Here's one bumper crop we've gotten this year!
The south end of our property had been neglected for several years before we moved here. It was the main impetus to put in the sprinkler system: the gravity flow irrigation that had been here just wasn't getting water to the far end.
Here you can see the rocky weed patch before we completed the water system and then reseeded. In the middle distance (underneath the sprinkler and to the right of it) you can see the three trenches I dug for the sprinkler lines.
Here's a closer look. Notice the additional rocks that I added to the landscape.
The National Resource Conservation Service maps showed the change in soil types, which we then discovered in person while ditch-witching the rest of the property. The south hillside required bigger equipment!
I've been picking rocks ever since (or trading horseback rides/lessons to grandkids and neighbor kiddos for the chore). Every year I think I've got them mostly out, and every year more seem to just appear! Oh well. It keeps me outta trouble.


  1. Its amazing to me, that the thought of even mowing pastures entered my mind this year. Ussually we get so little rain, we are lucky to have enough grass for the summer, and this year we have way too much. The lucky thing (kinda, lol) is the bugs are so bad the horses stay in the corral all day so they can escape teh bugs. And there is no eating in there. But they are plenty fat, even more so than I have ever seen them before. Our saving grace is we have mostly native grass and its not as lush or as sugary as the tame variety.

  2. Very thoughtful post - thanks!

  3. Your property is so beautiful!

  4. What I took from this post is how much hard work goes into raising horses. Not to mention the thinking and planning that I suspect never ends. Fascinating post and I know it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the many hats you have to wear, including the handling of a full time job!

    Absolutely beautiful property, EvenSong! I hadn't realized just how huge it is.