A horse is only as healthy and sound as his diet and environment dictate. Here are a few things you can do to make his life better and yours as a manager easier. Pastures and grazing management combined with recycling manure through composting can make a significant difference.
Horse manure is a tremendous resource for which you have already paid dearly in the form of feed, hay or pasture. Use it to the maximum and efficiently recycle it through composting. Composting is nature's way of recycling organic materials. If done properly, you can obtain viable compost from your mucking efforts within 4-6 months. You can accelerate the process with minimal work.
Grass and pastures are living entities, just like your horses. Pastures need to be fed and nourished. If they are not, micronutrients that your horse craves will not be present, and the health of your horse will be compromised.
Most Common Pasture Management Mistakes
1. Pastures are overgrazed. When this happens, soil becomes compacted, stunting grass growth and impacting grass growth rate. Excess manure accumulates and internal parasite control becomes a continual problem. Grass blade length ideally should not get below 1.5 inches long. When upper grass blade length is too short, growth rate of grass drops drastically. Without irrigation and fertilizer, by mid-July through early September, most grass growth will stop because heat makes the root system go dormant.
2. People do not take a pH test to check liming needs. Liming should ideally be done in early Spring or the Fall. Average pastures should receive at least 1 ton per acre every other year.
3. Horses get turned out on grass too early. By waiting an extra week or two, grass root systems grow and will be better able to support upper grass blade growth rates. Early turn out creates a major potential mud problem. Especially around gates, water troughs and overcrowded areas. Easiest way to control mud in paddock areas, run-in areas by sheds and barns, by gates, common walkways, etc., is as follows: Use a small tractor with a bucket and scrape off the upper four-six inch layer of soil. Then spread 1-2" of small gravel, pea stones, etc. Then lay down a section of landscape fabric to cover that area. Place at least 2" of sand, gravel or crushed stone on top of the cloth area. Over time some silting in and grass will creep in, but drainage and mud will be eliminated considerably.
Some Simple Solutions
1. Rotate Pastures if and when able. When grass gets too short, move animals to a new pasture and leave the area undisturbed for at least two weeks, longer if necessary.
2. Make a simple drag harrow to run over pastures to break up manure so it will incorporate more rapidly into the soil. Smaller is better. You can make a simple drag harrow out of chain link fence. Simply buy a section of fence that is at least 6' x 4' wide (6' x 6' if able). The size of the section depends on what you have to pull it with; small tractor, yard tractor or even a small truck. Buy two 12' long pieces of 2"x12" wood. Cut each piece in half so you have four 6' pieces. Drill a series of 5/16th" holes in the ends and center of the wood. Buy ten to twelve 1/4"x5" long bolts, with 2 washers and one nut per bolt. Start the bolts through the bottom piece of wood. Place the wood so bolts are facing upward, and lay the chain link over the bottom wood and bolts. Place top piece of wood over chain link, getting bolts through holes. Secure the boards, clamping down on the mesh. Use a couple heavy-duty screw eyes at each end of front boards, which can be used to attach a small chain or rope to pull the harrow.
3. Irrigate. Always irrigate at night when breezes are lowest reducing evaporation.
4. Fertilize your fields. Grass needs to be fed too. Talk to your local feed store or extension agent and find out what's best for your region. When and if available, always choose organic fertilizer sources. This will protect the ecosystem, including your water table, and ensure your horse is ingesting a minimal amount of chemicals.
5. When seeding or re-seeding, always try to use a pasture blend that contains some clover, legume or alfalfa based variety. These legumes will help add natural nitrogen to the soil, thus increasing its fertility. Re-seed in early Spring or Fall. Once again talk to some local resources and find out what they recommend. Pasture grass varieties vary regionally.
6. Plant shade trees that are nontoxic to animals. Place them at least 4 feet outside of paddock fences so horses won't eat them. Shade is excellent to promote grass growth by keeping it cool, and your horses will thank you too.
7. Mow grass if it becomes too tall. Young tender shoots can be more nutritious for your animals and will be lower in lignin, which they will steer away from. Mowing greatly helps control noxious weeds as well.
Josh Nelson started Beaver River Associates in 1987 and it soon became the largest worm composting operation in New England. Beaver River is the main supplier of worm composting supplies to Washington State University and Josh actively consults with municipalities in the northeast on organic waste recycling.