Managing horses can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be challenging. Improper pasture management of horses during the winter and early spring can adversely affect pasture quality and the environment.
Horse owners can elect to use drylots during increased rain or drought periods, when pastures need protection. Drylots are designed as permanent heavy traffic/use areas and are often used on cattle farms. They keep animals in a confined area to prevent them from damaging the entire pasture. A typical drylot would contain water sources, feeders, and mineral supplements. The area can be used for wintering animals, handling animals for medical treatments, reducing calorie intake for obese horses, and more.
Justification for a Drylot
Congregating horses around feeding and watering areas can create mud, increase soil compaction, eliminate desired vegetation, and lead to weed infestations. Simply put, overgrazing and wintering horses on pastures can be problematic in Kentucky because of the weather.
One reason is the relationship between precipitation and evapotranspiration (ET), the process of losing water from wet surfaces and vegetation due to evaporation and transpiration (water movement through plants). In early summer, plants survive by using their roots to remove water and nutrients from the soil. An intense rainfall event can produce runoff when the amount of rain exceeds the infiltration rate (speed at which water enters the soil), but this can be filtered by the existing vegetation. In late fall, precipitation begins to exceed ET, and the soil water becomes recharged.
By winter, ET has diminished, but precipitation is still occurring. The soil’s surface remains wet for longer periods, preventing it from storing more water and increasing the potential for runoff. These wet conditions reduce soil strength and allow mud to develop if the vegetation is severely grazed, trampled, or removed. Grazing too many horses on a limited area over long periods during these wet seasons creates muddy conditions for farm owners.
More important, increased traffic during wet periods increases the bulk density and reduces soil aeration, making root growth and water infiltration even more difficult.
While wintertime water movement is occurring and mud is accumulating, caretakers should supplement horses in pastures with additional feed to make up for the decrease in actively growing vegetation.
However, horses don’t stop feeding on the remaining forage. There is limited vegetation to reduce surface runoff, allowing sediment, manure, pathogens, and nutrients to flow off the soil surface and travel off-site. At this point, increased soil compaction is probably preventing absorption of water and nutrients into the soil. Meanwhile, streams are reaching the tops of their banks and removing water and contaminants from the watershed. Soil erosion, if allowed to go unchecked, can lead to environmental impacts such as the removal of soil and nutrients.
By spring, the once-green pasture is mostly bare with compacted soil. Weeds, which are very efficient at converting nutrients and sunlight into vegetative mass, now propagate in the bare areas. In the spaces used for feeding hay, a thick mat of uneaten material may have smothered the soil and vegetation. The area now holds moisture and has kept the soil temperatures cooler, preventing desired vegetative cover from re-establishing. The end results are fields with soil and nutrient losses that will require more management and money to eliminate weeds and re-establish grass.
How to Construct a Drylot
You can set up a drylot in a larger pasture area using a fenced boundary, or you can create a drylot as a hub for a series of paddocks. In either situation, horses are allowed access to the drylot through one or two gates that lead from the existing pasture or pastures. They use the area year-round to access water and supplements, as well as during the winter and early spring as a confined feeding area.
Make sure the drylot is large enough to space out gates, feed, and water and limit overcrowding that may expose horses and handlers to risk. Use farm gates to allow horses the freedom to move from the drylot to the pasture or as a means of limiting access to the larger pasture area.
You can easily determine the location of your drylot depending on your paddock’s layout. Consider topography and environmentally sensitive areas when planning the location. It should be a well-drained area that is relatively flat and does not have a drainage swale or ditch running through or across it.
The logical location of the drylot would be around an area with a water source. An ideal location is on a summit or flat area on top of a hill, as long as it has some protection (structure, trees, etc.) from the wind. A summit location usually provides a long distance for any runoff to travel before it reaches a stream or waterway. Don’t place a drylot near a stream or where the drainage to a stream or sinkhole is less than 150 feet away. If a stream is nearby, consider installing a riparian area (dense vegetation along a body of water) to protect water quality.
Place the drylot away from environmentally sensitive areas but close to the horse operation. Areas near barns might already suffer from high traffic and could have heavy traffic areas installed to reduce mud. Ideally, the drylot would be placed on a summit and not adjacent to a barn, because roof runoff can have an adverse effect if allowed to flow through any part of the drylot. However, having the drylot close to the farm operations can help save time on chores. Drainage water should move off the area as sheet flow and drain into a buffer strip. Clean water should be diverted from the dry lot.
When determining drylot size, make sure you’re providing adequate space for the planned number of animals to move around freely to eat, drink, and socialize. An area of at least 900 to 1,500 square feet per horse is recommended. The size depends on the age, type, size, number, and temperament of the horses as well as the area available for enclosure. Keep in mind that most horse operations that have constructed pads regret not making the sites bigger. If you have other uses planned for the pad, adjust the size of the area accordingly.
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