Horse Grazing

Understand When to Start Grazing

Grazing is more than simply putting animals in a pasture to freely forage. To be efficient, safe, and nutritious for both the livestock and the land, it is critical to understand when to start grazing, and the answer will be different for every pasture and every type of animal.

Undergrazing and Overgrazing

Bad timing when animals start grazing can not only damage the pasture, but can also be dangerous for the animals. If you wait too long to begin grazing, the pasture may be filled with older, less nutritious growth that can be more difficult to digest and will not provide adequate nutrition for the animals’ needs. Weeds can also take over an undergrazed pasture, which may introduce potentially toxic or otherwise unwanted plants into the animals’ diet.

If grazing is started too early, on the other hand, there may not be enough fresh, new growth to support the animals’ dietary needs and the pasture can quickly become overgrazed. Plants will not rejuvenate as quickly, and the ground can become more compacted and less able to support the verdant growth needed for a healthy pasture. Furthermore, an overgrazed pasture will have a higher concentration of manure, which can lead to a dangerous parasite load that may contaminate different animals.

Is the Pasture Ready for Grazing?

All pastures require some time to rest, regrow, and recover from grazing periods. This not only allows new plants to grow to nourish grazing animals, but allows manure to break down and parasites to disperse so the field remains healthy.

Once the new growth reaches the 3-4 leaf stage (approximately 8-10 inches in height, depending on plants), it is ready to be grazed again. This is the period when plants have developed healthy root systems and are in their most vigorous growth phases, which allows them to support a greater number of hungry animals. In general, native pastures require more recovery time but can be grazed intensely when they are suitable, whereas tame, cultivated pastures may be grazed somewhat more frequently but less intensely. If plants have already begun to flower or go to seed, however, it is a bit too long and the pasture may be undergrazed.

In addition to plant growth, it is important to check other safety features of a pasture before turning livestock loose to graze. Particularly in early spring or late fall, a field’s drainage should be adequate for local rains and moisture levels, or excessively muddy areas could be dangerous to animals and may not support sufficient plant growth for grazing. Fences and gates should also be checked and repaired or replaced as needed to ensure a safe space for grazing animals before they are put into the pasture.

Is the Livestock Ready for Grazing?

Different animals will be ready to graze at different times in their life cycles, depending on the animals’ species, breed, age, body condition, weight, and overall health. If the animals are in poor condition after a rough winter or bout of illness, for example, it may be necessary to start grazing somewhat later, whereas stronger, more vigorous animals could begin grazing sooner even if the pasture may not be perfectly ideal. The overall size of the pasture compared to the number of animals in the herd will also influence when the animals will be ready to take advantage of natural food sources, as a smaller herd could begin grazing on a larger pasture sooner than if more animals must make use of a smaller field.

Most grazing livestock begin foraging well before they are fully weaned, and should be allowed to graze with their mothers. New pastures and foods should be introduced slowly, however, to avoid upsetting delicate digestive processes that could result in weight loss or poor body condition. Even adult animals should be slowly acclimated to new pastures to avoid problems. Because moving between pastures can be stressful, it is best to have a regular pasture rotation so the animals become accustomed to periodic changes and can acclimate to new pastures more easily, but moves should not be so frequent that the animals don’t have sufficient time to adjust to their surroundings and make the most of the foods each pasture presents. The frequency of pasture rotation will depend on the size of the herd and the size of the field, the quality of the plants, and the nutritional needs of different animals.

There is no one answer for when to start grazing that is correct for every herd, every type of animal, or every pasture. Understanding the specific condition of your pastures and the needs of your animals will help you create the best pasture rotation schedule to meet your animals’ needs while keeping each field in the best condition for superior grazing.