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Rotational Grazing

Rotational Grazing

Rotational grazing involves dividing a larger pasture into several, separately fenced paddocks, and rotating horses among the smaller paddocks. The minimum number of paddocks for an effective system is four, but 12 or more paddocks are much better. Keep in mind that many of the paddock divisions can easily be done with temporary electric fencing.

Rotational grazing works because healthy forage plants are more productive if they are given an opportunity to rest and regrow between periods of grazing. As plants grow, they become more mature and less nutritious. Young, immature plants have more leaves than stems, and leaves have two to three times more nutrition than the stems, which are more fibrous and less digestible.

Since digestibility, palatability and nutrition decrease as plants mature, the ideal pasture has young, growing plants. Rotational grazing promotes growth by forcing horses to more uniformly graze a paddock instead of selectively grazing over and over the grasses they like the most.

The rule of thumb is to start horses grazing in a paddock when the forages are 6 to 10 inches tall, then move the horses to the next paddock after they have grazed the forage to an average height of 3 to 4 inches. The paddock just grazed by horses should be mowed or grazed by other livestock to obtain a uniform, 4-inch forage height within the paddock. Allowing the ungrazed plants to remain standing without clipping could stunt regrowth of the other forages by shading them. Immediately following mowing, the paddocks should be dragged to scatter the manure.

The length of time horses graze on each paddock depends on the amount of available forage and the length of time required for each paddock to recover from grazing. The recovery period varies seasonally with the rate of growth. The grazing manager must continually monitor the growth of the forage, and adjust grazing and recovery periods accordingly.

If animals are removed from a paddock at the proper time - when the forage is 3 to 4 inches tall - recovery will require as little as 21 days in the spring. The same paddock might require 45-60 days to recover in dry, summer months when grasses grow more slowly.

For example, if you have two horses and four acres of pasture, you could divide the pasture into eight, one-half-acre paddocks. In the spring, when the grass is growing rapidly, grazing each paddock for three days will give each paddock 21 days to recover before they are grazed again. In a dry summer month, the recovery period could be 60 days, so the grazing period on each paddock would have to be extended to eight to nine days to accommodate this.

Example of small-acreage grazing system, rotating between 4 pasturesMany horse producers don't have the proper facilities to do the best rotational grazing. If you do not have enough land to provide the forage your horses need, and you do not wish to reduce the number of your horses, you will need to keep your horses in a dry lot or stalls, and feed them hay there until your pasture or paddock has regrown to at least 6 inches.

For example, if you only have enough land to grow forage for three horses, and you have four horses, they will have to be kept in a corral or stalls and fed hay during times when the grass grows slowly to make it possible to give the forages the proper amount of rest before they are regrazed.

Horses should never be allowed to graze pastures closer than 3 to 4 inches. When your horses have grazed the pasture to this height, remove them and allow the pasture to rest until the grass regrows to height of at least 6 inches.

Don't Overstock Your Pasture

A mature horse needs about 1.5 to 2 percent of its weight each day in dry forage, though many horses don't stop eating when they've eaten all they need.  If the major nutrient source is pasture, aGroup of horses crowded together in a pasture 1,000-pound horse needs about 2,700 pounds of forage during a six-month grazing season.  Most of New Jersey's horse pastures are not irrigated, so with average production and management, it would take three to five acres of pasture to meet the nutrient needs of a mature horse.

By switching to rotational grazing, the amount of pasture needed per horse can be reduced, and the grazing season can be lengthened. On moderately productive soils, as little as two acres of well-managed pasture can support one mature horse in a rotational-grazing system for seven to eight months.

Resting Guidelines

Grass and legumes need recovery time after being grazed. These are merely guidelines. Stocking rates and growing conditions greatly affect forage growth. Also, the more closely pastures are grazed, the longer the rest period needs to be for species which are sensitive to defoliation.

14-16 days during first rotation (April)
20-30 days during fast growth (May -late June) and in the fall
30-40 days during slow growth (summer and winter)

14-21 days during early fast growth
21-28 days during normal growing conditions
35-45 days during slower growth


24-32 days throughout growing season
40-45 days for seed production

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New Jersey Pasture Management Guide for Horse Owners

Pasture Management Guide for Horse Owners (PDF, 2.15 MB)