Methods of grass management

December 2020

Cross Grazing - Cattle and sheep are not selective grazers and therefore can prove beneficial in helping:

  • To graze down weeds and rough grass that horses avoid
  • Level out the damage caused by horses’ hooves
  • Control the amount of grass available during the spring and summer months
  • Break the worm cycle – sheep/cattle ingesting equine parasites will halt their lifecycle without having any adverse effect on those animals. All animals on the land will need a worming programme for their own welfare.

If cross grazing is to be undertaken, boundaries must be safe and suitable for all the animals on the land.

 Cross Grazing

Harrowing can be useful for removing dead grass from the base of healthy grass, levelling uneven ground and helping to remove lightly rooted weeds. However, there are factors that should be considered when deciding whether or not to harrow your fields.

  • Harrowing should not be used in replacement of removing droppings as this can risk spreading parasites across the pasture.
  • If sycamore trees surround the field, harrowing should be avoided in the spring and autumn, as this can spread the seedlings and seeds across the pasture. The consumption of the seeds and seedlings has been linked to causing Atypical Myopathy.
  • Minimising pasture / soil disturbance, such as harrowing, is thought to help decrease the risk of Equine Grass Sickness.

Fertilizing helps to replace and improve the nutrient content of the grassland and soil, to promote plant growth. Nutrition loss can be caused by poor weather conditions, soil type, using grassland for hay/haylage or overuse of the land. Although a soil analysis can be conducted at any time of year, the best time to take soil samples is during the autumn or spring1.

Fertilizers contain chemicals which can be used to immediately provide the essential nutrients plants need. Organic fertilizers release nutrients more slowly, over longer periods and will also improve the soil composition1. If an organic fertilizer is used, horse manure should never be applied because of the risk of introducing equine worm larvae. Take care not to over-fertilize, as this can cause problems with excessive growth of lush grass which is not suitable for managing good-doers, overweight horses and those prone to laminitis. Seek expert advice from a reputable contractor regarding any use of fertiliser.

Be aware of the closed period when applying organic and inorganic fertilizers is prohibited. More information for your specific Nation can be found in the links below:

England: Defra guide to cross-compliance
Northern Ireland: Daera cross-compliance booklet
Scotland: Scot Gov website cross-compliance area 
Wales: Welsh Government cross-compliance booklet

Topping your pasture prevents weeds going to seed and spreading and minimises the chance of the grass becoming too long and unpalatable. Do not top ragwort or foxglove as these become more palatable to horses when dried but retain their toxicity.

Rolling flattens areas which may have become poached and boggy through the winter. Rolling can also be used to embed new grass seeds following re-seeding.

Rolling photo by Charlotte Pardon
Credit: Charlotte Pardon


Reseed
around areas which may have become poached and boggy through the winter, for example around gateways. A large amount of reseeding is not advised as this can damage grass roots. Reseeding is best done in the spring for optimum grass growth. Horses should not graze young grass until it is well established. New growth should ideally be five to six inches long before it is grazed to allow a strong root system to establish.

When choosing the most ideal types of grasses, we must consider those with a denser root, which are hardier to cope with the disturbance horses can cause, whilst balancing the ideal nutritional content and developing a palatable mix of grasses. The following grasses are of great value:

  • Smooth meadow grass
  • Creeping red fescues
  • Chewing fescue
  • Sheep’s fescue
  • Tall fescue
  • White clover in small quantities due to its high nitrogen content.

Horses relish herbs, which provide nutrients often lacking in more shallow-rooted species of grass. The following are of value:

  • Narrow-leaved plantain
  • Yarrow
  • Dandelion
  • Chicory
  • Chicory
  • Ribwort
  • Burnet

Weed management is important as horses tend not to eat weeds and as they spread and grow this can reduce the amount of good quality grass. Common weeds include docks, nettles and thistles. Weeds are best dealt with when in leaf, as at this stage they will be most vulnerable. If cross grazing is not practiced, hand pulling or spot spraying is best to target small specific areas, as this will cause less disturbance to the grass land (purchase of herbicides and the spraying of them is controlled by legislation – users need a Certificate of Competence in the Safe use of Pesticides to purchase the herbicides). A contractor should be used to spray any large areas of weed contamination. Spraying is best done during a dry period just before rain as the weeds will absorb the moisture. Horses should be left off the pasture until weeds begin to wilt - seek expert advice if there is a heavy infestation.

Rotational grazing involves moving horses between pastures during the grazing season to allow for periods of rest and regrowth. If the additional acreage is available this has been shown to be a great method of grassland management, with research suggesting a greater pasture quality in spring after winter rest2.

Rotational grazing management

Examples of Rotational Grasslands Management

 

Seasonal care for your pasture

SPRING - March to May:

  • Harrow
  • Reseed and roll areas which had become poached and boggy through the autumn /winter
  • Remove weeds and poisonous plants. Seek expert advice if there is a heavy infestation
  • Be aware of how much your horse or pony is eating as grass growth increases, presenting a possible risk of laminitis
  • Soil analysis if not done so in autumn.

Remember - only take machinery on to ground that is dry enough to prevent damage and compaction.

SUMMER - Late Spring to August

  • Weed control, with the immediate removal of any poisonous plants
  • Top the pasture to remove long, stalky grass and rough areas 
  • Harrow and roll pastures if conditions were too wet in the spring
  • Consider shelter availability for the hottest periods of the day.

AUTUMN - September to November

  • Stay alert to acorns and sycamore seeds
  • Maintain existing drainage by keeping ditches clear of plants and debris
  • Continue to control any ragwort growth
  • Water trough pipes should be checked and insulated ready for the winter
  • Plant any new hedges and trees if required; ensure the species are safe for horse paddocks
  • Hard standing around gates and water troughs ready for winter.
  • Soil analysis if not done so in spring.

WINTER - December to February

  • Daily checks of water source to check for freezing
  • Consider shelter availability - natural shelter such as trees that provided great shelter from the sun in summer, may now have lost their leaves, meaning man made shelter may be required
  • Regular checks around the field boundary for any holes caused by burrowing animals
  • Rest paddocks or designate a field specifically for winter turnout, if possible. Ideally use the paddock with the best drainage.


 

Resources

1) Equine Permaculture. 2020. All about soil- Part 5 Using soil tests to improve horse pasture. Available from: https://equinepermaculture.com/blog/2020/03/11/all-about-soil-part-5-using-soil-tests-to-improve-horse-pastures/

2) Weinert, J. R & Williams, C.A. 2018. Recovery of Pasture Forage Production Following Winter Rest in Continuous and Rotational Horse Grazing Systems. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. Volume 70. Pages 32-37.

 Pasture Management 

 Fencing 

 Poisonous Plants

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