Smallholding Pasture Field Maintenance
Every now and then, your fields need completely rejuvenating. You can do that by reseeding after weedkilling, ploughing, harrowing and then rolling the fields or by injection reseeding the existing grassland. Outside of that here are some tips and advice on looking after your fields.
The following points are important for keeping your fields in good condition: Seeding / re-seeding of the fields
Try to renew your grass every 10-15 years, by completely redoing the fields or, at least, by re-seeding. After ploughing and rolling and before seeding the new grass, you should carry out a repair fertilising. Firstly you will need to analyse the soil to ascertain the PH levels and whether it displays any mineral deficiencies. After adding the required ingredients, you can go ahead with the seeding. Use a grass seed mix specifically for horse pasture and not one for sheep or cattle pasture.
If you decide to re-seed the best time for seeding is autumn or spring. Summer is less suitable.
The grass seed mixture: suitable for horses
There are standard seed mixes commercially available for horse fields in England and Wales normally consisting of Perennial Ryegrass (3 to 4 varieties), Meadow Fescue, Timothy (2 varieties), Creeping Red Fescue and Smooth Stalked Meadow Grass. You need around 14 kg per acre.
Ryegrass is less suitable for horses as it grows very fast and overgrows the finer grasses, which horses prefer. Ryegrass also contains a high level of protein, which is good for cows (milk production), but not required for horses. Horses need a more structured mixture of grasses.
Creeping Red Fescue is one of the best grasses for horse fields and you should choose a mix without any Ryegrass. Ideally a standard mix should contain some or all of the following:- Creeping Red Fescue (4 kg/acre), Crested Dogstail (2 kg/acre), Timothy (1 kg/acre), Smooth Stalked Meadow Grass (1 kg/acre) and Cocksfoot (0.5 kg/acre). Ideally you could add some equestrian friendly herbs and wildflowers.
Topping, Harrowing and Rolling.
It is recommended that fields are regularly topped and lightly harrowed. Rolling is best carried our early in the grass growing season to jolt the grass roots into growth.
Remove droppings from the fields
Horse droppings should be removed every day. Especially to prevent worm contamination, but also to avoid the rough vegetation appearing in the latrines (favoured areas used by horses for both urinating and manuring).
In general, fertilising horse pasture probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Soil samples should ideally be taken annually, to ascertain the soil quality and to allow a fertilisation plan to be formulated, in order to keep the grass and the horses in tip top condition.
Limiting the amount of organic manuring
Outside of possible parasitic infestation problems organic manure, from animals, has an excellent fertilising value. The benefit is that organic manure releases its effective ingredients slowly, so that the fields benefit for the whole grazing season. In general, 10 cubic meters is sufficient for 2.5 acres. The reason is the high percentage of potassium in organic manure. Too high a percentage of potassium in the soil prevents grasses from absorbing magnesium and other minerals which are important for horses.
Providing a steady level of nitrogen
Some field owners spread an artificial fertiliser in the spring. The fertiliser used normally contains Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potassium. In traditionally available NPK the nitrogen is a major component and is designed to release within a few days and causes the grass to grow very quickly. As a result the grass contains high levels of protein, not ideal for horses.
Some years ago a fit for purpose fertiliser came onto the market, which contains a special nitrogen combination, which releases the nitrogen slowly (normally 2 to 3 months). This type of nitrogen is called ENTEC-nitrogen The benefits are that the grass grows well over an extended period but the protein levels stay low.
ENTEC works like a sleeping pill on the nitrifying bacteria when they attempt to use the ammonium from the nitrogen fertiliser.
This delays the conversion of ammonium to nitrate nitrogen.
As the stabilising effects of ENTEC diminish, the ammonium converts to nitrate nitrogen in the normal way.
By reducing the size of the nitrate nitrogen pool in the soil after a fertiliser application, the risk of significant leaching or denitrification losses is reduced.
Using a Phosphorus supplement in spring
Phosphorus is important for the initial growth of the roots, which the young grass uses to collect the nutrients from the soil. Weeds and unwanted grasses find it difficult to grow in a good phosphate environment. Also, phosphorus is an important building block for the development of the bones in a horse. The phosphorus present in the soil is difficult to obtain by the young grass, so it is important that the fertiliser contains phosphorus: for the grass root development and for the healthy bone growth of the horse.
Magnesium is often overlooked
Magnesium is an important building block for the development of green leaves. Also, the magnesium requirement of horses is quite high. In general, the levels of magnesium in the soil are low or the potassium levels are high, so it is difficult to absorb magnesium. Therefore it is important to add magnesium to horse fields.
Agricultural salt on a horse field?
Sodium plays an important role in the attractive taste of grass. It does not increase the growth, but makes the grass attractive to horses. Horses who work a lot need a lot of sodium (salt). By spreading a limited amount of agricultural salt on horse fields you improve the taste and give the horses a bit of extra salt.
Spreading lime in the autumn
Most soil samples of horse fields show a very low pH value meaning the soil is acidic. In an acidic field, it is more difficult for plants to absorb nutrients. You can repair an acidic field by spreading lime from September to November. The pH of the soil will then be neutral again in spring when the grass starts to grow.
- Grassland renovation: seed or re-seed every 10-15 years.
- Use a grass seed mix suitable for horses.
- Top, harrow, and roll the fields between periods of grazing.
- Remove droppings from the fields.
- Organic fertiliser, (animal manure), is excellent for use in the field, but needs to be carefully limited.
- Use a fertiliser with slow releasing nitrogen which keeps the protein level low.
- Pay attention to the mineral content of the fields.
Freshen up and improve the pH value of the fields by spreading lime in the autumn. (The opinions given in the foregoing are those of the author only. Professional advice should be sought from a qualified agronomist).