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About Paddocks and how to keep healthy

Weed Control –
Soil Conservation and Improvement –
Pasture Species Conservation and Improvement –

 By Walter BergerADip AppSci (H. Mgt)

Grass is the stuff of life for horses. At least in ideal situations it is. Even Oats are really only a type of grass, vastly improved and modified over millennia, but still only grass. However, horses are tough on grass. Five hundred odd kilos of horses thumping down on iron-shod hooves does not do much for what is underneath them at the time.

Research has shown that horses prefer grasses 10 to 15 cm tall. They are also fussy. They eat what they like first, and only when all the good stuff is gone will they progress to the rest. Mind you, if there is nothing else to nibble on, they will turn their minds to anything they can get their teeth on, fences, trees, poisonous weeds, anything. So a small paddock which constantly has the good stuff eaten out of it will soon only have the bad stuff left. And the proportion of good to bad will get worse and worse if nothing is done. Picture your average to bad Agistment property with dirt and weeds instead of grass. Mind you, if you stick a horse on an acre or less and leave him there, that is pretty much what you end up with regardless of how much hay or hard feed you give the horse.

Pasture conservation tends to revolve around just a few, but important principles. They are: Weed control, Soil conservation and improvement, Pasture species conservation and improvement. But not necessarily in that order.

Weed Control –

This can be one of the easier tasks to take care of. Believe it, or not. It partially depends on what method of weed control you prefer. If there is only a weed or two here or there, you may get by with manually digging up the offending plant, root’s and all. If you need to dig up half an acre to get rid of weeds, you might start thinking of other methods to get rid of the weeds. There are many different type of herbicide sprays around, some are mainly designed to deal with woody weeds like Blackberries, others target broadleaf weeds like Flatweed, and others will kill most plants it lands on. If not careful wanted plants could die if just touched by some sprays. Therefore great care is needed in the selection and use of herbicides. There is a chart on weeds and herbicides at which may give you some idea on what to use. If in doubt on this one, seek professional advice.

Oh, also be really careful about the quality of hay you buy and feed. It is the biggest source of weeds there is.


Soil Conservation and Improvement –

There are some basics in this rather complex subject. The soil in your paddock has to be able to grow grass. In order to do so the following in your soil needs to be right, or at least close to right: Water, air, acidity and nutrients.

If the soil is compacted too much by the pitter-patter of your horse’s hoofs, nothing will grow. All the little air spaces within the soil that let water and nutrients in, and let roots grow are gone. Bit like concrete really. You can reduce compaction by doing a couple of little things. Do not put your horses food and water near the gate. In fact, do not put your horses food and water next to each other either. That way the horse has to walk around the paddock for his different needs and spreads the wear around the paddock. Also if possible if its really wet, try to confine your horse to a stable, stall or just a smaller section of paddock, that way only a small area turns to mud instead of the whole lot. Because once the mud sets you can have concrete again, only lumpy this time. Resting the paddock at odd intervals for a month or so can also help with keeping the soil from getting compacted, as it gives the worms and other bugs a chance to make little holes and move nutrients about. Apart from that, the only other thing to help with soil aeration maybe is to loosen up the soil manually or mechanically. That is compaction out of the way, and any rain that may fall should be able to get in, instead of just running off.

Now for the nutrients in the soil. Horses eat grass; grass gets its nutrients from the soil it grows in. So in reality the horse gets its nutrition from the nutrients in the soil in a roundabout way. If you pick up your horse’s poo from the paddock, most of the nutrients that were in the soil are taken out in the bottom of the wheelbarrow, or gets used up by the horse in producing the energy to run around the paddock. So the nutrients in the soil get less and less, because they just don’t replace themselves. What the horse uses or you remove from the paddock needs to be replaced to keep grass growing in the long term.

There are a few approaches you can use.

  • Under ideal circumstances you will have three or four paddocks to rotate your horse through. You pick up all manure daily and compost it. This will kill all intestinal worm eggs or larvae in the manure. Then, when you move the horse, you spread the composted manure back over the paddock. This will add organic matter, which worms love, and nutrients back to the soil. Early autumn and spring, you spread some organic fertiliser, or possibly superphosphate, on the paddock to get the grass going. Something like Dynamic Lifter or another brand of pelletised Chicken manure is good, but you need to apply it a rate of about 100kg per acre to derive any real benefit. It smells a bit, but it does add organic matter, and is not as likely as superphosphate to cause the soil to go acidic. Because of that last fact you would  also spread some agricultural or garden lime every few years. Most soils in Australia are acid, and acid soils can negatively affect pasture growth, lime can help with this. You can also get a soil test done every now and then to see what nutrients are needed.
  • Back to reality. Your horse is at an agistment property and has lived in the same paddock for 5 years. You are made to pick up all manure. About the best you can do is actually make your horse’s paddock smaller. If you are working your horse on a regular basis, that should not make a big difference to the horse. On the bit that is fenced off, you can put down a bit of fertiliser and some lime. As long as there is some grass left to grow, within a month or two you may end up with enough grass to give your horse a bit of a treat. This will work best in spring and autumn. But in winter and summer it could also prevent the entire paddock from turning into dust or mud.
  • For those who managed to get a mortgage big enough to give your horse a few acres, and do not want to follow the ideal path as above, you could try a combination. If you divide the pasture into three or four smaller paddocks, the grass will get a rest and you will have a better chance at maintaining the quality of the pasture. If you trust your horse-worming program, you could leave the manure in the paddock, and then spread it with harrows or similar once you move your horse to another paddock. That way you keep the nutrients and the organic matter in the manure on the paddock. Or if you are a bit tidier than I am, remove the manure if you like. But you will have to make it for it with more fertiliser. If  you fertilise once a year early autumn is good, as it may help to get the grass growing in the autumn break, which can help to provide some more fresh feed between summer and winter.


Pasture Species Conservation and Improvement –

So you now have fertile, well aerated soils that hold water and also are full of worms and bugs to keep it that way. Perfect conditions for a wonderful crop of weeds, unless there are plenty of desirable pasture species around to outgrow the weeds. Usually, unless each paddock gets at least two or three months rest between grazing, the preferred pasture species will gradually disappear. Paddock rotation is the most important factor in maintaining a good pasture. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs a horse will eat the good stuff first, and keep at it, until it will not grow anymore.

A good pasture will usually be composed of a mix of species. There will be grasses  (rye, fescue, cocksfoot etc) that grow better at some times of the year than others. There will also be various legumes or clovers (white, strawberry etc). These serve a dual purpose. They provide your horse with a delicious snack, and also help fix nitrogen onto the soil, which in turn helps the grass grow. If the paddock is left to grow too long, the resulting clumps of grass will kill off the clovers by not letting them have enough light. So it may actually help to run a mower or slasher over the paddock to reduce the height to about 15 cm or so. Some mowers leave big clumps of dead grass on your paddock, so if you can lay your hands on a good mulcher-mower, the resulting clippings will be mulched and help retain moisture in your soil, and also add organic matter as it decomposes.

If you are running out of good pasture species in your paddock, it may be time to re-sow or over-sow. This you may be able to do yourself, or you may have to call in an agricultural contractor to renovate your paddock. If doing it yourself, you will be more than likely over-sowing. As per the fertiliser (which you should also do if re-sowing), the ideal time is early autumn. You would have killed the weeds or just sprayed them recently. Buy some Pasture Seed mix suitable for your area from a reputable Produce or Seed Merchant. They should be able to tell you how much to use for what area. Then you just more or less sprinkle the seed evenly on the bit of paddock that you are over-sowing. It would be best to drag some harrows or something over the area that has just been re-sown, this would at least partially cover some of the seed with soil or hide it, so the birds do not have too easy a time to get it. After that you hope for rain and mild conditions so that the seed has a chance to grow a bit before winter. Come spring, it should be ready for a light grazing, before another rest to let it establish properly. Easy.

Now you know the basics, the only thing you really need is time. Now where was that torch again, so I can catch the horse and go for a ride??


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