Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Pasture Management and Turnout

Okay, Megan. You asked for it, here it is. 😉

On my last post, Megan asked the following:
Would love to read more about your pasture management plan/turnout schedule and the reasoning behind it. I've been casually looking at farms and it's going to have to be small acreage so inquiring minds want to know 😋

You know you've done a good job when you're not seeing any erosion!
When I was planning to buy my property, I recognized that one of the biggest hurdles I would have to overcome and adapt to was to successfully use and management limited pasture. The lay of my land only leaves 2 acres available for turnout needs. This necessitates a dry lot and rotational grazing. Of course, this isn't ideal for three horses! But it's my reality and I was (and am!) determined to make it work in the best way. 

Aerial view from last summer during construction.

Step 1: Establish & Improve the Pastures

The first step to began last year when I hired a local farmer to come up and brush hog my future pastures. The area had been unmowed and unmanaged for a series of years. However, based on the surrounding lawns in my neighborhood that are maintained simply by routine mowing every year, I knew that this first step was bound to make a big difference for my future pastures. It's pretty outstanding what simple routine mowing can do to encourage grasses to grow instead of other forbs and woody stems (i.e., milkweed, goldenrod, Rubus species, hawthorn, etc.). It also helps immensely that this entire neighborhood was once a working cattle farm; my topsoil - as proven during construction last year - is pretty primo, even if it is currently lacking in some regards.

Brush hogging the golden rod.
Look at all that gorgeous top soil!

While mowing made a huge difference for my land, it was only the first step! Next, I took soil samples and send them to West Virginia University for free analysis. Yes, free. If you're interested in doing this for your own property, research the opportunities within your state. Many states offer the service free of charge for residents through Federal and State agencies and/or colleges and universities. If your state doesn't offer any of these services, you can always work with someone like Southern States who will both test your soils and then help you interpret the results and build a custom fertilizer mix for your needs.

Soil testing is important to do to determine what treatments are going to be best for growth of pastures/crops. Not all soils are the same! Environmental factors and land use practices dramatically influence the type and quality of soils. If you want to improve or change the composition of vegetation on your land, you've got to start with the soil. Plants need nutrients to grow well. And different plants require different nutrients. (Are all those various grade school science class lessons coming back to anyone else right now?) Anyone who lives in a rural area with farming should be familiar with this concept; many farmers rotate crops to help/improve their soils so that they better support other plants later on. (Nitrogen fixation is a big one.)


My soil results (above) told me that my soils were a bit acidic (pH of 4.6). The recommended treatment was to lime the pastures. I went a step further with my results, too, and emailed them to my local Southern States to get their opinion on what I should do. Through conversations with David at SS, I learned that liming was going to be my main focus for the next couple years. pH values don't change quickly. David said he'd like to see my pH value up closer to 6. 

I did the first round of liming this spring, and I will likely lime again next spring, too. I plan to continue working closely with local experts and do my best to implement their recommendations. It will be a process, and it may change and evolve over time, but that's to be expected. I'm new to this and pretty fluid about everything (within financial reason). I anticipate that once the pH is at a more ideal level, I will look more into a custom fertilizer mix to improve the mineral composition of the soil. I will also likely perform disking/seeding to establish better forage over time. 

Step 2: Prevent/Minimize Erosion/Sedimentation AKA No Mud!

I know I harp on this a lot since this project began, but I hate mud in pastures. It isn't great for the land, and it isn't great for the horses that live on that land. I dealt with some ridiculous mud at every barn I spent time around growing up. I witnessed situations that I now know were largely preventable with a bit of foresight and planning. 

I knew going into my purchase that I was incredibly fortunate to be buying land that drained exceptionally well.  When Dave had a perc test done years ago, the tester noted that it was one of the best in the region. Still, with neglectful practices that lead to gross mismanagement, anything can become a mud pit in a hurry in the east (as evidenced at other farms in the region I've spent time at). Too much hoof traffic can compact soils and damage vegetation above and below ground in a manner that negatively effects growth. This reduces the ability of vegetation to draw in water, which helps prevent erosion/sedimentation. 

Barn with dry lot. As viewed from here, the French drain resembles a capital E: the toe of the slope is the vertical portion of the E and then the three horizontal figures extend on the far side of the dry lot, through the dry lot right before the overhang, and on the far side of the barn. 

The first big step to minimizing sedimentation/erosion/damage to my soils was opting to have a dry lot for the horses. This "armored" area would provide a place for the horses to spend the majority of their time without harming soils. Planning for this from the get-go to dramatically reduced the likelihood of issues. I also installed a pretty intense French drain in and around the dry lot to both protect it and further minimize the likelihood of sedimentation/erosion (especially of areas downslope of my property).

The next step to minimize sedimentation/erosion/damage to my soils was planning to have multiple [small] pastures to rotate the horses though.

Step 3: Pasture Rotation

Designing the property to have two pastures to cycle the horses' time on was the next step in my grand plan to manage my land in the best way possible. This would allow the land to have a rest period to grow and recover from the stresses of grazing/traffic and help guarantee that the land remains healthy and functioning as it should into the future so that it can continue to support my horses. 

Majestic Grif posing during evening turnout a few weeks ago.

Currently, the horses are turned out for 3 to 4 hours per day on days that the ground is not a soppy, wet mess. This is still a very fluid thing based on my learning and the weather/environment. I also have been turning them out for one month per pasture. However, with less precipitation (leading to less vegetation growth) this is likely to evolve as the land dictates.

Thus far, the pastures are looking really great. We had heavy rain event of ~2 inches in 45 minutes last week and the only place I noticed erosion from runoff was along the edge of the dry lot where the water running off the pasture pushed the stone dust around a bit and partially covered a T post that has been lying there since last year. (Yeah, yeah, I know I need to move it, but look how my procrastination has paid off - its helped me make this cool observation!)

Step 4: Future Plans?

Looking forward, I plan to continue soil testing, liming, fertilizing, disking, and seeding as necessary. The composition of vegetative species growing in the pastures is far from where I'd like to see it one day, but this is a process that takes time. And ultimately, as I have already stated, this process will be one that is on a very fluid schedule based on what the land is telling me it needs. Additionally, as I learn more from my equine nutrition course, my approach will likely change to help guarantee my horses the most balanced diet possible from their pasture.

Thunderheads rising above the pastures earlier this month. The near pasture had just completed it's month rotation with the horses on it. They're in the far pasture for July.

Overall, I am very pleased. There is definite room for further improvement, but for the first year, I am super happy with the progress I've made and the land's response to that progress.


  1. It's a good plan. Rotating, bushhogging, liming, aerating is what we do. We also re-seed in the fall - the horses tend to eat the good stuff and leave the weeds behind which makes for natural selection of weeds

    1. I love hearing this because I LOVE your farm!

  2. i love how detailed you are, and that you're taking advantage of being able to make good choices *first* then implement ad hoc solutions as needed. so many of the barns i've been to have been established for very long times (very very long times in the case of charlie's current location) and some issues have been going on just as long. likewise, esp at some of the bigger barns, choices end up being be made for the horses (or, staff work hours, honestly) first and land second. haven't seen too many examples of larger farms that have been able to scale up this level of management

    1. Ugh. That is SO frustrating. But not entirely surprising. I wish there could be a paradigm shift for the future though. For horses and their people to be happiest, the land really needs to be more of a focus.

    2. same emma, which is such a shame because I see 70 acres being mis-used and how much money it wastes!

  3. As a soil enthusiast, I'd like to share that the NCRS's web soil survey tool is very useful for getting an idea of what sort of things land is useful for- especially if anyone is looking to buy raw, undeveloped land and build or make drastic changes to existing land. It's available here:

    WSS is free and examples of things it can tell you include: suitability for a septic field, whether your soil especially susceptible to compaction, suitability for a basement, what sort of crops your land is suited (or not suited) to grow, etc. It is such a great tool!

  4. Isn't science amazing? Also- the free resources available. I just found out this year that you can get hay tested at no cost.
    I love all the thought you've put into your barn and pasture- it certainly shows!

    1. I love science! But I'm a biologist sooooo, haha. And yes! Certain states also have free hay testing. I will say though - at least in WV - what I was able to get for free from the extension service wasn't nearly as detailed as some of the more basic "pay for" hay testing. I suppose you really do "get what you pay for" though.

  5. Very interesting! I hate mud as well.. mud isn't as much of an issue in Florida as it is up north (since we have such sandy soil) but I see so many properties not well managed down here!

  6. Very interesting! I have about 3-ish acres of pasture and I didn't quite take managing it very seriously at first. I only had 1 horse here and he couldn't keep up with the grass. I had it bushhogged (the best!), added 2 more horses, plus some super dry years and now I'm in a bit of a deficit pasture-wise.

    I have heavy clay with moderate topsoil, so I have to wait until it is very dry to put them out or they punch mega holes in the ground. I would also love to aerate and fertilize my fields - I find the clay base really compacts over time with the pounding of hooves. ;-) I also have a few more acres separated by a creek that I should try and fence...something for the future!

  7. This is cool! I love how detailed you are, and that you really got as much info as you could first and then most of the things you might need to fix later are small and easily done. Still love that majestic photo of Grif lol. I remember a little of this from when my parents did their property, but also considering this is a desert and there's no pasture.... We didn't need to worry about that LOL

  8. you really know how to make a girl feel special!!! thank you for sharing this, spicy and my other future horses thank you!

  9. Your farm is looking so good! So well-planned and thought out - I'm sure you have some very happy horses on your pasture. :)

  10. Thank you for this information! It makes me want to go back to school for land management. I hate the amount of mud and poop that adds up in pastures, especially in the spring.