Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Rotational Grazing: Schedule with Before and After Pics

My first two years of horsekeeping, I used my turnout area more or less continuously. (My first spring, I did keep them in the corral behind the barn for about a month while the last snow melted, the ground dried out, and the grass grew in; the second year it wasn't as muddy so I didn't need to do this). 

This year I finally divided my pasture into three sections and started rotating. I noticed a big difference in the condition of the grass and land. Here are some before and after pictures:

9/20/15: Last year, this pasture was grazed year round and in September it was looking thin as well as being dry and crispy from lack of rain.
9/16/16: This is the same section of the pasture, just looking slightly more uphill (to the right). It has been rested between grazing periods this year. Look how much more grass there is! Disclaimer: we also had a very dry August last year.
From June to October 2016, this was the layout and approximate acreage of my three turnout sections, which are divided by electrified Horseguard tape and step-in posts:

I have two horses and one mini-donkey grazing on this land. In the summer they're stalled or dry lotted during the day and out overnight, so they graze about 14 hours a day. Last winter they were out on Sections 2 and 3 about 8 hours a day from January to April. Now that I have my dry lot I can rest the pasture over the winter while still allowing the horses to exercise!

This is the rotation schedule I used this year:
  • Winter & spring: Sections 2 & 3 (before division)
  • 6/27 - 7/15 (19 days): Section 1
  • 7/16 - 8/1 (17 days): Section 2
  • 8/2 - 8/26 (22 days): Section 3
  • 8/26 - 9/13 (19 days): Section 1
  • 9/14 - 10/7 (24 days): Section 1 or 3 (the dry lot was being installed in 2 and 3, so there were in Section 1 some nights)
  • 10/8 - 10/13 (6 days): Section 2 (short rotation because the horses suffered from some diarrhea after fall rain, so they were dry lotted for a couple of days then moved to Section 3 where the grass was less rich)
  • 10/16 - present (18 days and counting): Section 3
  • 11/5 (planned): Section 1
To be conservative, every time I rotate them from one section to another, I start with only a few hours on the new section to avoid shocking their system. When I rotate them off a section, I mow it to an even length of about 4-5" and then harrow the area to break up manure (this is only a good idea when it's hot enough to kill parasites, so above 85ish and dry). I also do other pasture maintenance like overseeding, liming, and fertilizing according to soil tests but those things were done both before and after I started rotational grazing so they don't account for the difference in the grass.

Here are some pictures from 2016 showing different sections before, during, and after grazing periods:

3/16: Sections 2 & 3, after a winter of use

8/26: Section 1, after 6 weeks of rest

8/31: Section 1, after only 4 days of grazing

9/3: Section 1, after 9 days of grazing 

9/14: Section 1, after 19 days of grazing and a dry August

9/14: Section 2, after 6 weeks of rest
11/1: Section 1, after 3.5 weeks of rest
It's been really interesting to see how the grass does under this system. I plan on taking more pictures and doing another entry like this next year, when my three sections will each be about 1 acre in size. To easily document each rotation, I make a note on the calendar I hang in the tack room to track farm expenses. The dates on the photos can also be helpful!

My experience supports the notion that although it won't work in every climate or setup, under the right circumstances rotational grazing can be very helpful in maximizing pasture yields and land health. There's a lot of information on it available online. Here are a few sites that I found helpful:

Of course, you have to take your own climate and conditions into account so you might consider contacting your local agricultural extension office too.

In the next post, I'll have more information about how I cross-fenced the pasture.

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