Land Management is an important aspect of an holistic approach that is very often completely overlooked or written off as it is not understood or is hard to implement when you don’t own your own land.
It can be very hard if you are in a livery situation with your horses to actively take control and truly manage the land that your horses have available to graze, but with a little understanding you can in the least manage what you have to the best of your ability and perhaps even open a dialogue with the land owner to begin to manage the land in a different and ideally more horse friendly way.
One of the biggest problems often faced by horse owners is having to graze on rich pastures optimised and intended for increasing milk production in dairy cows or to fatten up beef cattle. This is clearly not ideal for horses that are “designed” to graze a vast mixture of forage and herbage ideally of high quantity but low “quality” – certainly in relation to the nitrogen fertilised cattle pasture many of us find ourselves with today.
If you are lucky enough to own your own land then you have every opportunity to significantly improve things in the long term.
Soil nutrition, where it all begins. What’s in the soil, feeds the plants, that in turn feeds your horse. So if something is lacking at the base level in the soil it stands to reason that it will ultimately be lacking in your horses nutrition too. You can obviously supplement your horse at this level which can sometimes be a good compromise particularly if you don’t own or manage your own land. However Soil analysis can give you a good indication of what’s going on at this level and what might be beneficial to be applying to your land and in what quantities.
Before we go further with this as an interesting side note I would first like to mention soil aeration. No not harrowing but actual aeration, gardeners seem to do it lots but for some reason it has become a rare practice in equine pasture management. In fact when I tried to find someone to aerate my paddocks I was met by a mixture of blank stares to incredulity & I got a sense that many “farmers” thought I had more money then sense!! I’ve had several friends who have had soil analysis done, then had their land aerated and when they’ve had further analysis done have found that the levels and balance of minerals and trace minerals has changed dramatically (usually for the better) without them ever applying anything to their land. So it seems to me a good place to start.
Sometimes we do have to add to the land, but do your research and choose the right fertiliser/application option for you and your land and horses. If you are diligent in removing droppings from the pasture, which of course is useful in managing parasite and worm burdens you also need to consider that the cycle is being disrupted. The horses are constantly “taking” from the grasses and the soil and nothing or very little is being naturally returned in the sense of manure/fertiliser so ultimately the land will become “depleted” over time. There are many ways to consider managing this, cross grazing with other species such as sheep can help with parasite burdens but also their droppings will remain on the ground and feed the plants & the soil.
Another important consideration is to look at is the plant and grass species that are available. Over sowing with herbage and grass mixes designed to mimic more ancient flower meadow type pasture is often a feasible and achievable improvement that can be made. Be careful to do your research and select a mix that will add diversity to the species available. There are some specialist seed options already out there have a look at meadow mania or the grass seed store for some ideas.
Chris Day at the AVMC gives this advice on his website about equine pasture management:
“Modern horse pastures suffer two common problems. The first is that they are often over-grazed by horses, usually without the benefit of other grazing herbivore species during the year (non-equine species will have different grazing patterns, thus promoting more varied grassland management. They will also reduce the level of parasite infection in the grass for both species).
The second is that, in the post-war thrust for home food production, the idea of grassland ‘improvement’ has been to spread artificial nitrogen on grassland, to use herbicides both to discourage ‘weeds’ and to encourage grass and to plough up and reseed with a narrower band of grass species. The main advisory bodies and colleges have inherited their basic culture from this government-led self-sufficiency drive for farm land and, now that farming has declined in the UK and horse-keeping has increased, such organisations are turning to advising on horses, for their income. Sadly, the policy has not changed, to recognise and to take into account the crucial differences in dietary needs between simple-stomached herbivores, such as the horse on the one hand and ruminant herbivores, such as cattle, on the other. The result is that colleges, advisory bodies and current farming wisdom propose using artificial nitrogen to promote grass growth. It does promote grass growth very well indeed, but at the expense of wholesome nutrition in the case of horses. It can even cause toxic side-effects for horses.
We believe that a traditional pasture is like gold dust and that it should not be ploughed. It is a fact that an old and well-managed pasture has built up a massive store of fertility and goodness which, if broken up, will contribute great productivity to subsequent crops for two or three years. However, its unique balance and biodiversity can never be replaced in our lifetime.
If a pasture requires refreshing, we advocate undersowing with a variety of different and traditional indigenous grass species and herbage, without damaging what’s already there. The variety of species is important to allow for the varying needs of the grazing animal, to allow for seasonal differences, to provide different growth phases so that supply is more even and to balance nutrition. Furthermore, different rooting patterns can exploit the deeper soil layers and bring up important trace minerals.
As in so many walks of life, it pays to take a holistic view.
What actually happens is that the rich diversity of plant species, once a feature of traditional grassland, is giving way to a very limited number of species, mostly selected grasses (e.g. ryegrass). This grass is then top-dressed with artificial nitrogen, which displaces the trace mineral cations (e.g. copper, zinc, manganese) from the clay micelles of the soil (this is a known chemical effect). The very next rain washes away those minerals (this is a demonstrable consequence of such management). Furthermore, the soil microflora has been damaged. Yes, the grass looks green. Yes, the grass is thick and lush. It is, however, nutritionally nowhere near in the same league as traditional grass, even ignoring the tragic loss of species diversity and the absence of essential, deep-rooting herbs. The topsoil has been increasingly impoverished over the years, as a result of such short-sighted policies. Knowing the importance of minerals to nutrition and health, we can easily predict what a disaster for the horse this process is. Another important penalty is that non-structural carbohydrates in grass are increased and non-protein nitrogen compounds (both potentially toxic families of compounds) are increased, while important fibre (structural carbohydrate) is decreased, in response to artificial nitrogen application.
One clear result of all this, apart from the poor nutrition that ensues, is that ponies (and, to a lesser extent, horses) are much more prone to laminitis, when grazing such ‘improved’ grassland.
Furthermore, Potassium levels in rapidly-growing grass are increased, while Magnesium levels are decreased. This can result in more excitable, jumpy horses, showing greater anxiety and unpredictable behaviour. Muscle health will also suffer.
We have heard it argued that ‘we have to fertilise with artificial nitrogen to produce grass’. However, while artificial fertilising will produce more grass it will produce less nutrition per acre (per hectare). It looks good (and green) but will support fewer horses.
Herbicides (weed killers) appear to be very dangerous for horses. We have even had several bad cases of laminitis following application of a common ‘livestock safe’ herbicide to nettles. The problem appears to occur when horses eat the wilting nettles, days after they have been sprayed.
Apart from the benefits to botanical and invertebrate biodiversity and to the dependent ecology in general, a variety of herbage in the sward is valuable for grazing horses. Deep-rooting ‘weeds’ can bring up all-important minerals from deeper soil layers. Dandelions, for example, are very good at this and are very palatable. Nettles are a good ‘weed’ to have around the edges of the pasture. They act as host to various butterfly species and, when cut, offer wonderful nutrition, including minerals, to horses, being very palatable when wilted.
Conserved forage is also subject to similar problems. Hay, haylage and dried grass will vary in suitability for horses, depending upon the management during its growing period.
Contrary to current popular belief, horses will fare better on meagre unfertilised traditional pasture than on lush, productive ‘modern’ or ‘improved’ pasture. Horses are accomplished fibre-converters and dried-looking pasture in late summer is much more beneficial to them than its luxuriant, well-fertilised counterpart.”
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