FOLLOWING a cold and dry spell over the last number of weeks, the start of the grazing season has had a start-stop feel to it. With welcome rain falling during the week and milder temperatures nationwide, grass should start to grow. Some areas will be a little behind others depending on the soil type, usage or rest over the winter months and if there has been any lodging of water during the heavier spells of recent rainfall.

In the spring, preparation for grazing should be carried out, with rolling and harrowing utilised when ground conditions are suitable. Once grass becomes plentiful, it makes sense from an economic and horse health and welfare viewpoint to maximise the contribution that good quality pasture can make to the overall diet of your horse.

If your horse is in work and is primarily stabled for that purpose, perhaps you can consider including increased turnout time into your daily regime, providing your paddocks are suitably fenced, have access to a supply of clean, fresh water and are free from any harmful weeds.

Monitor your horse’s body condition score regularly (Henneke Scoring System chart and instructions widely available online). Adjust the feeding rates of your concentrate feed according to the horses body condition score. If you are feeding an energy-dense feed, you may need to reduce your daily feeding rates over the growing season; it is important to consult the feeding guidelines on your feed bag to ensure you are still meeting the minimum requirements. If oversupply of calories is an issue, a balancer can be incorporated into the diet to maintain a balanced micronutrient intake.

On breeding farms, the aim will be to have as much stock as possible turned out 24/7 at this point. Lactating mares will benefit from the improved grass quality and quantity as they have a significant energy requirement in the first three months of lactation. Managing the oversupply of grass can be an issue for some owners, mainly where horse numbers are low, and a significant volume of grass is available.

Pregnant mares without a foal at foot do not have an elevated requirement for energy in the diet and can be fed as a horse at ‘maintenance’.

Restricted or controlled grazing can be useful; mixed grazing with other animals such as sheep can work well also. Allowing cattle to graze energy-rich pastures before horses are turned out to them is used successfully by many farm owners.

Management decisions

Monitoring the growth in paddocks around the farm and documenting the grass availability can assist you in making management decisions around the profile of horses grazing various paddocks around the farm. Topping will keep paddocks fresh throughout the summer months.

Growing youngstock and ‘store’ horses will benefit significantly from a grass-based diet over the summer months. A comprehensive nutrient-dense feed balancer or appropriate quantities of a good quality ‘complete’ feed such as stud cubes or stud mix can be used to provide a fully balanced diet over these months depending on the quality and quantity of pasture available.

Bone density is a key indicator of bone strength. Maximum bone mineral content is not achieved until a horse is six years old, albeit approximately 76% of it is achieved by 12 months of age.

Providing appropriate nutrition during this period will impact the horse’s life; indeed, increased bone strength will be a crucial factor in minimising the risk of skeletal problems for horses in their training/performance career. The natural opportunity that grazing provides for movement throughout the day is also hugely important for developing bone strength.

Pasture quality can be quite variable, but careful ration supplementation can avoid the adverse effects of drastic swings in available nutrients. Take the opportunity to assess the quality of the grass and the safety of the paddocks on the farm. Contact a local grassland specialist if you need assistance with forage sampling, weed control or general paddock management. Investing in your paddocks will reap the rewards for years to come.