As the trend toward small ranchettes has grown, so too has the number of people with a few horses on their acreages. Today, there are about 6.9 million horses in the U.S., which makes a $12.1 billion economic impact to the U.S. economy.

But with this trend toward more horses, there’s an increasing need to help small acreage landowners understand conservation and grazing management.

Often times small acreages are overgrazed because landowners have too many horses and not enough land, points out Rod Baumberger, a Sturgis, SD-based range consultant and former Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grazing specialist. Baumberger also owns a small acreage and has horses himself.

Foremost, Baumberger says is that landowners need to recognize what overgrazing does to their property. The major impacts are reduced plant production and increased bare ground. This can lead to noxious weed problems, wind and water erosion, soil compaction and reduced soil fertility. All total it likely means less available forage for livestock and may even create nutritional deficiencies for the animals that are grazing, says Baumberger.

Baumberger says there are three questions horse owners should ask themselves to determine if their land is being overused. They are:

1) Is the productivity of your grass starting to decline?
2) Do you notice an increase in the amount of bare ground and/or weeds?
3) Are you buying excessive amounts of feed to supplement horses year-round?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you likely need to evaluate the number of horses your land can support.

Have A Plan
Baumberger says the first step toward preventing overgrazing is to develop a conservation plan for your property. This process includes gathering information about your available resources and the horse’s requirements so you can make management decisions. The steps to conservation planning include:

  • Make a map of your property. This should include existing and planned buildings and sheds, fences, water sources, shelterbelts, etc. Any weed and erosion problem areas should also be noted on the map. Baumberger says creating a map can help assess how much grazing area is available, determine where cross-fencing may be beneficial, and help monitor if problem areas are expanding from year to year.
  • Inventory the resources on your property. This includes gathering information on soil types, topography, and vegetation. From this information you should be able to calculate the available Animal Unit Months (AUMs) your land can produce and thus a carrying capacity of the number of horses you can graze. Extension and NRCS staff are available to help with this inventory process.
  • Understand the horse’s requirements. These include exercise, shelter for inclement weather, fresh water (8-12 gallons/day) and feed – about 30 pounds of grass or hay per day. Or, for grazing purposes one average horse equals 1.3 to 2.4 AUMs (depending on the size of the animal). Also note that horses are continuous grazers. Thus, if grass is in front of them, they will eat.

With these three steps to put together a conservation plan, Baumberger says landowners can then evaluate grazing options for their horse(s). Basic strategies include:

  • Rotational grazing, where existing pastures are cross-fenced into smaller paddocks to rotate horses through; or
  • Limit grazing, where horses are let out to graze for short periods one or two times daily.

Additionally, you may consider developing exercise paddocks, which are areas for exercise only. Or, if a stream runs through your property, fence those areas off so grazing can be controlled.

In devising the grazing system that fits your situation, Baumberger says it is important to keep in mind that timing and rest are the two critical components. Baumberger says grazing systems can work to prevent overgrazing and in some instances increase grazing capacity.

He speaks from his own personal experience as he created 13 paddocks using electric fence and polywire on his 22 acre property to rotationally graze 4 horses. The horses were moved daily or every couple days to allow about 20 days rest for each paddock. Baumberger brought his horses into the corral each night, so they weren’t eating grass continually. Overall, he was able to increase grazing capacity on his property by about 30%.

Landowners can rotationally graze on any size scale, he says and notes that two, three or four pastures are better than one pasture that is continuously grazed season long. Again he says, “The most important components for protecting the grass are time and rest.”

Baumberger concludes by encouraging horse owners to seek technical grazing assistance from Extension or NRCS staff to determine how much forage is available on their land.

He adds, “Ask yourself what you want your land to look like now and in the future. And then you may need to ask yourself the hard question of “How many horses your land can support?”

Most importantly he says to protect natural resources and prevent overgrazing, landowners need to be aware that the size of their acreage may limit the number of horses they can keep.

For more detailed information, go online to view a publication from the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension about Managing Horse Grazing at http://pods.dasnr.okstate.edu...