I want to keep my horses as naturally as possible. To that end, I'd like them to be on grass as their sole source of food the majority of the time. I do supplement with grain in the winter, and if you own a performance horse or use your horse for more than just light riding, they will need more caloric intake than just grass. A horse can survive on six hours of grazing per day, but mine are out 24/7, which I feel is best not just for their physical health, but for mental health, as well. Shelter is available for inclement weather. But my goal of grazing all year was not met this year (or last) due to drought.
This is a picture of my "pasture" from July. As you can tell, there's no grass to speak of. This summer was the second year of drought for us in Arkansas. Even in poor conditions, you should be able to graze for 300 days in this area: http://batesvillestation.uark.edu/4657.htm
click on "Pasture Management" or you can go to uark.edu and search "300 days of grazing".
My lack of grass is directly due to my poor pasture management. I was too optimistic last summer and then again this spring, thinking "surely, it will rain next week" for way too long! Last summer, I started feeding hay in August. This summer, it was June. My mistake was not taking the horses off of the pasture soon enough.
Horses should be removed from pasture when the grass gets to be two inches high, and not put back on until the grass exceeds four inches (I am currently waiting for five to six inches, because I damaged the pasture so severely, letting it get grazed right down to the dirt). This does not mean they need to be on a dry lot (my horses currently are on a dry lot, to allow the entire pasture to recover... They stand wistfully gazing over the fence at their old play-ground...). The pasture can be managed with an electric fence, partitioning the space to allow the heavier grazed area to recover. When it recovers, I plan to add an electric line that partitions the front of the pasture (nearest the barn) from the back pasture. Horses will have access to the pond from either side of this fence. I have shelter set up for them to get under a roof in bad weather, no matter which side of the pasture they happen to be on.
The photo above is my dry lot. That's Sasha with a pile of hay and there are two small water troughs behind her. It's a good sized paddock- large enough for a hand-gallop if a horse is so inclined. I am glad it is so large, as they have been in it for months, now. Besides the ability to stretch their legs, this large size affords me several weeks before I have to drive the pick-up truck in there and pick up manure.
The above is why you need a dry-lot to feed hay. This bare patch is where I had a round-bale last winter. Here it is August and it is still a bare patch. But check out that great grass coming up around it!
Since they have been off the pasture for a little while, it is beginning to look pretty good in there: the old grass sent up seed heads which have since dried up and scattered. Below those dry stalks, you can see the grass beginning to come back. It's about two inches high.
We also cleared a bit more pasture (if they grazed it to the ground, we must need a bit more, the thinking went). This is the big brush pile that remains from that... you can see that we did leave a few trees. I have noticed that the grass seems to grow best under the trees- it likes the shade and gets a longer soak when it rains because of the drip-line.
Of course, we planted seed in the new areas of the pasture. Went down to the local farmer's co-op and asked what to plant for fall germination. Here, we were told to put down rye and white clover. It's starting to come up!
Here's another shot of new grass- can you tell that I am excited?!
This is the top of the pond dam. We had it cleared of trees, too. (The trees looked great, but as they grow, they send roots down deep which can cause the pond to leak. Can't have that!). We put some of the rye seed down here, and you can see it coming up, too! The really green stuff down by the water's edge is a water plant that the horses don't eat.
That's it for today! Lesson for the day: take horses off pasture when it gets down to two inches (no matter the season) and don't put them back on till it is in excess of four inches... electric fences are good for partitioning the pasture to prevent overgrazing. I'll blog about the electric fence when we get it installed!