Dry Lots in Winter

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With fall and winter here, this is the perfect time to talk about dry lots and what they can do for your horse pastures. The term “dry lot” refers to a space with very little or no vegetation, a water source, and shelter.

In cattle operations, dry lots are commonly used for pasture preservation. Livestock producers can use these smaller paddock areas if their pastures need a rest or if they are waiting for new pasture growth to occur. In the winter, this can help prevent mud accumulation and compacted soil.

For our horses, this is important. Muddy conditions can cause problems like thrush, hoof abscesses, hoof cracks, and pastern dermatitis. Thrush is a bacterial and fungal infection of the soft tissues of the foot that results in the degeneration of the frog. Left untreated it will penetrate the sensitive layers of the foot and cause lameness. Hooves will absorb water and become very soft in wet and muddy conditions. If the feet dry out quickly, the hoof may contract rapidly resulting in hoof wall or sole cracks.

Hoof infection and subsequent abscesses may occur when bacteria in the environment penetrate the cracks. The soles of horses’ feet contract and expand, as does the hoof wall, but the sole periodically exfoliates. Persistent muddy conditions and wet-dry cycles may cause some horses to lose more sole than is normal, resulting in thin, sensitive soles. During the wet fall and winter, having a dry lot can help prevent these problems in all of your pastures (since you are confining the mud and compaction to one area instead of all pastures) and can mean lusher pastures in the spring. While the idea sounds simple, it does require a bit of planning. You need to make sure the area can support the number of horses you want to put in it (400 ft2 per horse is the minimum amount of space required) and you want it to be relatively close to the barn — you will probably be moving horses in and out in some colder weather, and you’ll be feeding a lot of hay. Shelter is imperative, as with any pasture area. A three-sided shed or lean-to is sufficient in a dry lot and a 12X12 lean to should accommodate one to two horses easily. Of course, the more horses you have, the bigger the shelter needs to be!

A water source is key, again in any pasture. If you spread these areas out (food in one place or shelter in another) you can somewhat control the movement of your horses. This can help decrease the total compaction of the soil or hopefully prevent huge mud holes from forming. Directing the rain water away from high-traffic areas is important to prevent the mud problem. Stone or gravel may be required in these areas to reduce erosion as well. Crush and run covered by screenings, ground limestone, or gravel can provide some footing help and eliminates some of the mud.

For more information, please contact Taylor Chavis, Extension Livestock Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 910-671-3276, by taylor_chavis@ncsu.edu, or visit our website at http://robeson.ces.ncsu.edu/.