What is pasture management?
Pasture (or grassland) management is the practice of growing healthy grass and related plants to sustain year-round forage availability, whilst also encouraging ecological health. This can conserve or enhance native grasses in your pasture as well as improving the soil health.
As stewards of the land either as horse owners or yard managers, we all have a responsibility to ensure our land management practices not only promote healthy horses but maximise biodiversity and minimise the unnecessary use of chemicals, including herbicides and the drugs found in de-wormers.
Why do we need to manage our pasture?
- Engaging in good pasture management means you can provide a safe turnout area in which your horse(s) can exercise and exhibit natural behaviours.
- Managing your pasture actively will also allow you to grow the type of grass you want.
- The grass already growing in your paddock may not be the best kind for horses.
- Overseeding can encourage growth of more horse-friendly grass varieties.
- Good pasture management may reduce your feed costs as well as improve biodiversity and reduce the environmental impact, as the soil below our grassland is a large carbon store.
- Healthy grassland is also more resistant to poaching (becoming waterlogged) and desiccation (drying out).
How should we maintain our pasture?
Despite best efforts, owners are often faced with a poached, sad-looking field by the time spring comes around. This is the time to do some general maintenance to help your pasture recover, including harrowing and rolling.
- A chain harrow towed behind a quad is a common sight, but you could also get a contractor in to harrow your paddock for you.
- Harrowing helps to aerate the top layer of soil and encourages grass growth as well as removing moss, dead grass and weeds.
- It will also flatten mole hills and go some way towards tackling poached areas, depending on the severity.
- However, do make sure you poo-pick the entire field before harrowing as otherwise parasitic larvae will be spread across the field. Harrowing is not a suitable alternative to poo picking for management of worm eggs on pasture.
- Some contractors may have the kit to be able to harrow and overseed the paddock at the same time, which is a great way to introduce some more equine-friendly grasses.
- Harrowing should be followed by rolling, which will flatten any remaining poaching and firm up the soil structure around the roots of the grass.
- It’s worth getting a contactor in to do this for you as a tractor will be able to manage when the ground is soft enough for rolling to do some good.
Topping and weed control
- As the grazing season continues the ageing grass, standing tall and tough, becomes less digestible which might suit some horses, however topping will encourage fresh growth which is more digestible.
- You could get a contractor in who has the right kit to do this.
- If you do need to control weeds in your paddock, you could choose to have them sprayed off.
- Given current regulations, you would need to get a licensed contractor in to do this for you and follow guidance on how long the pasture needs to be left before being grazed by horses again.
- Topping can prevent weeds going to seed, but be careful if you do this with any ragwort present – you would need to make sure any cut ragwort is removed and disposed of safely as it becomes more palatable once dried.
- Digging small patches of weeds (especially ragwort) up by hand is generally the most economic and effective method of weed control.
Sheep can be a great alternative to machinery – and are excellent for weed and parasite control! They have different worm cycles to equids, which means they won’t be affected by the worms which affect your horses and vice versa. When cross grazing with sheep, particularly on wet or boggy land, you may need to test your horses routinely for liver fluke (same process as a faecal egg count) which can be passed from sheep to horses, however the risk is relatively low. Sheep will also eat down any rough areas created by horses undertaking selective grazing. Sheep graze much closer to the soil than equids and act as effective lawnmowers to stimulate new grass growth.
- Before applying a fertiliser, it is advisable to have your soil analysed to determine its pH (ideally between 6-6.5) and which nutrients may need topping up in the soil.
- Chemical fertilisers commonly include:
- Nitrogen (N) – which helps with growth of leaves and aids photosynthesis
- Phosphorus (P) – which assists root growth and development of flowers/fruit
- Potassium (K) – which boosts overall plant function and performance.
- If applying chemical fertilisers consider a lower nitrogen variety than typically used in agriculture, the P will promote root development and the K plant health without excessive grass growth from higher nitrogen products.
- Natural fertiliser options include manure, slurry or seaweed, which add nitrogen and boost fertility.
- Ensure dirty bedding such as woodchip or shavings is well-rotted down before application to prevent worm eggs being spread around the pasture.
How does poo-picking help with pasture management?
- Poo-picking your paddock helps to keep the pasture palatable as well as reducing weeds and the worm burden of any horses grazing the field.
- Try and poo-pick at least twice a week, ideally more often than that.
- If you don’t poo-pick regularly you’ll find that your horses will create latrine areas which will result in patches of rough grass and weeds.
- Don’t undo all your efforts by creating a muck heap in your field – Tipping poo in the corner of the field will cause the grass round the pile to grow faster than the rest of the field, making it very appealing for your horses – but grazing right next to a muck heap will significantly increase your horse’s worm burden. Worm larvae can also travel one meter from the heap, another reason to keep it out of the field.
- For large fields there are attachments for machinery, such as ‘paddock cleaners’, that collect droppings rather than spreading them as with harrowing.
- A standard stocking rate for horses is one acre per horse, plus one extra acre – so four horses would need four acres plus one extra, making a total of five acres.
- Ideal stocking density for your field could vary significantly depending on the type of land as well as the breed, size and age of the equids being kept there including calorie requirements, as how much shelter is available and whether you have access to a stable.
Over-stocking can lead to poor soil and grass quality which in turn can impact on your horses’ health, so it’s worth making sure you have a stocking rate appropriate to your paddock. Grass which has been grazed down very tightly will be stressed and the soil will be less resistant to erosion or poaching (depending on your soil type and weather conditions).
How do gateways impact on pasture management?
As high-traffic areas, gateways can very quickly become poached, as can footing around water troughs.
- It is worth scraping out a semi-circle approximately three horse-lengths from the gate or trough and putting down crushed stone.
- Though it may seem costly at the time, there can be huge benefits to the health of both your horses and pasture.
- Cheaper options, such as putting woodchip down in the gateway, may seem less expensive at the time but can end up adding to the problem when the material starts to break down.
- In sloping fields, it may be worth positioning gates at the highest point to maximise drainage around gateways.
- Rotating between which gate you use can be helpful, as it allows one area to dry out a bit before it gets used again.
Why does pasture management matter?
Pasture management might seem costly and/or time-consuming but it really is worthwhile – even small changes can make a big difference to your horses’ health, and if you view it as an investment, it’s worth every penny!
Healthy grass is an excellent source of forage for horses, very short “stubble” from over grazing and areas with lots of weeds can be high in water soluble carbohydrates (WSC) which is problematic for horses that suffer from metabolic conditions. Whereas well maintained grass pastures containing a mixture of equid friendly grasses provide a better diet for our horses and the ecosystem around them.