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Give your pasture a makeover before turnout

Insights
Chloe Palmer explains how to take simple steps to get the most from your pasture before summer turnout.
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However, this is the optimum time to treat your pasture to the necessary ‘TLC’ to make sure it is ready for the grazing season or can yield a good crop of haylage.

 

The management of grassland used to make haylage will be different to the management of grazing pasture. For example, it is usually necessary to apply a top dressing of fertiliser on ground used for haylage production.

 

It is also sometimes advisable to roll mowing land, especially if it has been grazed during wet conditions. In most cases, these operations will not be necessary on grazing land.

 

If your horses have been turned out for the winter onto your grazing land, it is probably now looking rather bare. The most important step to take is to rest the grassland, preferably for up to three months.

 

Chain harrowing is very effective on winter turnout because it pulls out dead vegetation, lightly aerates the soil and will even out slight areas of poaching. It will also loosen soil on the bare areas, which then creates improved conditions for over-sowing with grass.

 

Chain harrowing to spread the droppings can be effective as part of a worm control strategy, but only if done during dry, warm weather.

 

Harrowing when cool and damp can make the problem worse as, rather than killing the worms, it will simply distribute them.

 

If you have species-rich grassland or if you are aware of ground nesting birds such as lapwings or curlews nesting in your field, harrowing should be avoided or carried out with care to avoid pulling out valuable plants or destroying nests.

Field operations

Consider harrowing to:

  • Loosen rutting on poached ground to create a more even surface
  • Aerate the surface of compacted ground
  • Scarify the vegetation surface prior to over-sowing with grass seed
  • Remove dead vegetation from the sward
  • Do not harrow in late autumn when no further grass growth is expected

Bare areas

If you have a lot of bare areas in the field you might consider over-sowing your pasture with a suitable ‘renovation seed mix’. These are available from agricultural merchants and contain hard wearing grasses which thrive in conditions of lower nitrogen, such as those found in horse pastures.

 

Desirable species include creeping red fescue, rough stalked meadow grass, crested dogs tail and sweet vernal grass because these are palatable to horses and lower in the soluble sugars which can cause laminitis.

 

Most mixtures will contain a proportion of perennial rye-grass which is high in soluble sugar. So if you do have equines prone to laminitis, look out for native pony grass mixtures, which are becoming more commonly available.

 

It is usually possible to hand-broadcast the seed, concentrating on the barest areas. Hand-held seed fiddles are a very useful tool for doing this. These are available from online gardening suppliers or are sometimes found at farm sales.

 

Dry conditions pose a challenge to those trying to re-invigorate pasture because grass seed needs moisture to establish. Think carefully before spending a lot of money on seed (usually around £5/kg) only for it to be eaten by the birds because it has not germinated.

 

Reseeding a pasture from scratch, no matter how badly poached it is, is rarely a good option if the field is to be used primarily for grazing. It will usually entail some form of cultivation, which inverts the soil profile and means come next winter, the sward will be far more prone to damage.

 

Spreading fertiliser when over-sowing pasture should only be done if a nutrient deficiency has been identified following soil analysis.

 

Why top pasture?

  • To prevent unwanted weeds from seeding
  • To tidy up rank vegetation on latrine areas
  • To reduce the dominance of grass species which horses tend to avoid, such as cocksfoot and false oat grass
  • If possible, leave a margin around the field edge untopped because this will provide habitat for small mammals such as brown hares and field voles

All-weather

Mary Korn, a successful endurance rider who has competed for Wales, runs a small yard near Caernarfon, North Wales.

 

“The best thing I ever did was to construct an all-weather turnout area which I use when the ground conditions are really wet. I’ve also invested in semi-permanent electric fencing which means I can rotate my grazing and rest areas of the field.

 

“I apply calcified seaweed to the fields every other year, because it improves the grass growth, resulting in a thicker sward. Also, the soil up here tends towards a low pH so the calcium helps to counteract this.

 

“I poo-pick most days and have found, as a result, there is hardly any grass in the fields which the horses won’t eat.”

 

Evidence suggests removing droppings can also reduce the worm burden in pasture, especially if used as part of a programme of faecal counts and targeted worming.

Weed reduction

Mary has found collecting droppings also seems to reduce the proliferation of weeds in her fields.

 

Grassland grazed by horses is prone to pernicious weeds because horses create gaps in the sward which weed species readily seed into.

 

Broadleaved dock, creeping thistle and spear thistle are common in many horse paddocks.

 

Chemical control is generally the most effective way of dealing with these species but it needs to be done before the weeds develop a ‘flower’ head to be successful.

 

The legislation relating to crop protection chemicals is complex and increasingly strictly enforced.

 

Therefore, it is always advisable to seek advice from a qualified agronomist. Similarly, using contractors who have the necessary spray qualifications is also recommended as many herbicides are highly toxic to people and animals.

 

Topping repeatedly can reduce the vigour of some weeds if undertaken over the summer months.

 

The success of this technique for weed control varies considerably and seems to depend on a variety of factors, such as weather conditions, timing and the weed species. Topping rank areas of vegetation routinely also keeps pasture looking tidy.

 

When is rolling useful?

  • On newly sown swards
  • On land where haymaking is planned, particularly where it has become uneven
  • Avoid rolling compacted soil, waterlogged soil and grasslands of botanical or archaeological value

 

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