by Haley Ruffner
9 March 2023 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628
In parts of the country wracked by harsh, snow-filled winters, the first hint of green in the pastures often fools us into thinking spring has arrived. Some of the snowmelt mud has given way to solid-looking patches of green shoots, and both you and your horses are looking forward to fresh grass after a long winter of feeding hay. You might be looking at your hay supply, thinking you’ll have to stretch it out to make it last until first cutting, so turning your horse out on the first new spring grass is tempting—you’ll save on hay, have to clean stalls less often, and your horse will get to stretch his legs.
However, this impulse to turn your horse out for some early season grazing will inevitably lead to significantly decreased pasture yields throughout the rest of the growing season. While closing off sections of pasture to allow both turnout and forage growth is more labor intensive, practicing rotational grazing and limiting areas of the pasture that animals are turned out on during those first few weeks of growth are best practices to encourage a healthy pasture. Even if your farm is lacking in acreage or cross-sectioned fencing, taking small measures like putting up temporary fencing to protect new grass will help.
Most cattle operations practice some form of rotational grazing in which sections of the pasture are “rested” for about three weeks to allow for forage regrowth and prevent overgrazing. Many horse farms, however, don’t prioritize pasture growth in building their turnout schedules. Penn State Extension recommends that farms should have 2–4 acres of land per horse in order to maintain pasture growth with horses in full turnout, but the reality is that many farms don’t have enough land for the number of horses they have. In an ideal world, sections of pasture will be rested for nearly a month at a time to allow new growth to reach 6–8 inches, which can then be grazed for about a week or until horses have grazed to three inches of grass remaining. When a section of pasture is continuously overgrazed, desirable grasses like timothy, orchard, and brome will die off, and unpalatable weeds will have an opportunity to take over in their place.
Early spring grazing on short grass with increased moisture in the ground can lead to compacted soil and uprooting, which are compelling reasons to keep horses and cattle out of pastures when they start to green up—grass that is uprooted in early spring will not grow at all throughout the rest of the season, and compacted soil will inhibit root growth and water permeation. Deep, muddy ground that gets torn up by livestock in early spring will also dry with ruts and divots throughout it, leaving it uneven and potentially hazardous to walk on.
Grass that has reached the four- or five-leaf stage is typically considered ready to sustain grazing. At less mature stages, the grass will be 90 to 95% water and lacking in nutrients. In addition to being poor quality feed, pastures that are grazed too early will lose 45% of the season’s forage production, according to Manitoba Agriculture. As a general rule of thumb, farms should keep enough hay on hand to get them through until June without relying on supplemental grazing to keep weight on their animals.
Growth conditions in very early spring make for very fragile grass, so even if the ground is drier than it’s been all winter and new grass seems to be shooting up, waiting for more stable conditions to turn horses out on it can make a world of difference in the quality of summer pastures. The “pull test” can tell you if grass is strong enough to be grazed—if you pull on a handful of grass and the entire clump uproots into your hand, it cannot withstand grazing yet. Even if it means feeding more hay now and subdividing pastures to limit grazing on the new growth, it will ultimately save you on reseeding pastures and increase nutritional density in your turnout areas down the road.
Haley Ruffner is a sales broker for Aden Brook, a lifelong equestrian, and an accomplished writer.