Managing grass for horses is totally different to managing it for agricultural animals, says Miles Greenwood.
Horse paddocks tend to be small and are often intensively grazed by nothing other than horses. Most owners like, or need, to be able to use them all the year round. This can lead to poor grass growth, an abundance of weeds and untidy looking paddocks.
It was the realisation there were an increasing number of horse owners who did not have the knowledge or the means of managing their grass which led to Liz and Miles Greenwood setting up their business, Equine Pasture Maintenance, six years ago.
Based at Haworth, West Yorkshire, where their land runs up to the ruins of Wuthering Heights where the famous novel was set, Miles is a third generation beef and sheep farmer and Liz’s family had always kept horses. They were looking for a diversification business to fit in with their farming enterprise.
“The last few years has seen a big increase of the people who are keeping horses on their own land. Many have no knowledge of grassland management and don’t know where to go for help.
“A lot of horse paddocks are not easily accessible by normal farm machinery and few farmers have the time or inclination to do work on such small areas,” says Miles.
The business has grown rapidly and although most of their work is within 30 miles of home they are happy to travel further afield and try to fit in as many jobs as possible in a particular area in one day to reduce costs to customers. Nearly all of their specialist machinery is operated from an ATV, making it possible to deal with small paddocks and narrow gateways. They have also recently moved into supplying rubber surfaces for equine arenas.
“We find that most customers are very keen to learn about what they should be doing. We offer a range of services which will help improve their grass and give them ongoing advice about what to do, but this has to be practical for their own circumstances,” says Miles.
Picking up droppings, rotating grazing wherever possible and not grazing grass right down to the ground are key factors in encouraging grass growth.
If you have to turn out in winter, shutting up a paddock from August and letting grass get really long before grazing it in November and December, will help save the ground, advises Liz, as the longer grass will offer some protection.
If you must turn out in winter, try to have just one small sacrifice paddock, which can be repaired in spring, or alternatively install a small bark-covered area to use for winter turn-out and leg stretching, enabling you to keep horses off grass altogether during winter, which will mean more grass to turn out on to at spring.
When taking on a new customer, the first thing Liz and Miles usually do is sample the soil. “If you get the soil right you stand a chance of growing grass, but with the price of fertiliser it is important to only use what you need.
“The most common problem with horse paddocks is a shortage of lime, not P and K. We tend to use calcified seaweed as a liming agent, as it is slow release and you do not need to take horses off the paddocks,” says Miles.
Paddocks, which have been used over winter, will benefit from chain harrowing in spring to remove dead grass and level poached areas.
Any compacted areas will benefit from aerating to allow oxygen and nutrients to reach the grass roots and encourage growth.
Any bare or poached areas should be top-seeded to prevent weeds taking over rather than grass. However, these paddocks will need shutting up until the seed has taken.
Droppings must be picked up, as soiled areas will cause selective grazing due to souring of the grass and will encourage weeds and unproductive grasses, such as couch, to grow.
If droppings are not picked manually, harrowing will often be sufficient, but if the problem is severe, paddock brushing or vacuuming with special equipment is advisable.
“Now is a good time to stand back and look at what you have got,” says Liz. “You will see any wet patches which might benefit from draining; although expensive it could be cost effective in the longer term.
“Also decide which paddocks might require spraying for weeds. These should be grazed first and then closed up from late April/early May.
“Allow three to four weeks of growth so that as many weeds as possible have come through and are growing vigorously, for spraying in mid- to late-May.
“It can look unsightly for a while but means a more cost-effective control of weeds is achieved.
“Spraying can affect seedling grasses, so weedy paddocks should be sprayed first before any reseeding is undertaken.”
Spraying is also the best way of controlling ragwort, advises Miles. It is better than pulling, as this can cause root breakage, which then creates more plants later. Because ragwort has a biannual growth cycle, it must be sprayed at least twice and timing is critical for the best results, he explains.
“Feed costs are rising all the time and, by maximising their land, horse owners should be able to save themselves money, but you can’t keep taking out of the land without putting something back.
“On-going management is important, a little bit of attention now and again will pay dividends. But timeliness is important with majority of operations, so it is important to plan ahead and think what will need doing.
“The more you look after your grass the more it will reward you,” says Liz.