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Homegrown for June 18, 2009

Grazing Small Acreages

by Carol Dunn

HUERFANO- Thirty-five acres may sound like a lot of land to some people, but when it comes to raising horses or other grazers around here, it’s just a drop in the bucket.  The average annual precipitation in Huerfano County is about 12-16 inches a year.  That amount of precipitation doesn’t often support thick, lush pastures.  If you try to graze two horses on five acres, you’ll end up with your own personal dust bowl.  It doesn’t look good, it’s not neighborly, and it can seriously damage your land.  

    I overheard a conversation among local ranchers about how many acres it takes to support one animal unit.  The consensus was about 40 acres, but it depends on the condition of the grass on those acres.  An animal unit, defined as 1,000 pounds of grazing animal(s), might be a horse, a cow+calf, or up to 7 sheep.  

    The two main rules for grazing are: don’t graze your pasture in the spring until the plants are 6-8 inches tall; and don’t graze after the plants have been grazed down to 3-4 inches tall.  Removing more than half the leaf material weakens the plant’s roots and makes it less likely to fully recover from grazing.  As the plant becomes less healthy over the seasons and years, weeds move in and threaten the grass production of your pasture.

    Few small acreage owners have the amount of grazing land needed to pasture horses year-round.  Also, given the choice, horses tend to choose the tastiest grasses and will overgraze and stress them.  So continuous grazing is not recommended for dryland pastures like ours.  Most small acreages would benefit greatly from only being grazed a limited number of hours per day, rather than the 9-14 hours horses typically graze.  Grazing for only part of a season, for instance only in spring when grass quality is high, is another way to protect the health of grazing lands.  Another option is fencing a pasture into smaller sections and rotating the horses from one section to the next as the grass is grazed down.

    If you choose to limit the number of hours your horses graze, you can supplement their summer grass pasture with 1 ½ pounds of grass/alfalfa hay for every hour your horses would have grazed.

    According to CSU Cooperative Extension equine specialist Lori Warren, a horse will eat, trample or damage approximately 3% of its body weight per day in pasture forage.  An average 1000-pound horse will use 30 pounds of forage per day.  To determine the amount of forage your pasture produces, see the CSU Cooperative Extension publication, “Determining the Grazing Capacity of Your Horse Pasture,” http://equineextension.colostate.edu/files/articles/PastureGrazingCapacity.pdf

    The Natural Resources Conservation Service also has publications about grazing and management.  See Chapter 5 of the National Range and Pasture Handbook at www.glti.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/publications/nrph.html.  Some portions are dry reading, but you’ll get a good idea of how important it is to manage your grazing land with forethought and an eye to the future.