My husband and I are considering purchasing some land so I can someday have the horses I've dreamed of. The parcel we've got our eye on has a large amount of overgrown pasture that was used for horses in the past. I have no clue where to even begin with reclaiming this pasture. Can you point me in the right direction?
A friend mentioned that horses in western Washington, where I live, don't graze 24/7, and instead are kept in dry lots. This, I presume, is because the rich, cool-season grasses will cause a horse to founder. How can I work around that? I really, really, really want to find a way to graze my horses 24 hours a day, year-round. (I definitely plan to implement a rotational grazing system.)
Are there any lower-sugar warm-season grasses that will grow in western Washington? If I were asking this question five years ago, I would say no because of the cool, dry summer and wet, moderate winter, but that simply isn't representative of the climate anymore. Even if we get the same amount of rain each year, we get it differently -- in "real" rain showers instead of daily drizzle. We have ever-increasing amounts of sun (year-round), and our spring and summer temps are hotter than they used to be. Can you help me find a grazing solution that my horses will thrive on?
Hi Melissa - what an exciting project!
Pasture reclaiming is different everywhere, so I'll just give you general advice.
1. Know your land - the soil type, how fast it drains, etc.
2. Know what's on it NOW and what's been there in the past - in your case, it was horse pasture, so it may still have some useful grasses and legumes, and in any case it won't have been treated with farming chemicals (atrazine and such), so you're a bit ahead of the game there.
3. Know what you want to grow - what type of pasture, what grasses, etc. This will depend partly on the animals you plan to graze there, and partly on your needs. If it's a large enough expanse that good pasture could actually feed your horses for X number of months each year, hurrah - and you'll want nutritious grasses. If it's a smaller area that is going to serve as a source of exercise and fresh air and SOME grass to nibble, but you'll still be feeding hay, pellets, etc., then your priority will be grasses that can withstand heavy traffic. If your horses are "air ferns", plant durable, low-nutrition pasture grasses - ones that are high in fiber and low in protein and digestible energy. Think through all of this before you buy your seed.
4. Get good advice based on local conditions. Ask your extension agent for information about how to prepare your land, when and where to do soil testing, what fertilizers to use (and how to use them) if fertilizers are necessary, and how and when to plant your new pasture. If the existing pasture is still useable and not full of nasty weeds, you might be able to mow, mow, mow, and then overseed in the fall with the pasture grasses of your choice. If the pasture as it stands is mostly wicked weeds (roadleaf, velvetleaf, pigweed, etc.,) or dangerous plants that your horses shouldn't eat (buttercup, groundsel, hemlock, ragwort, etc.), then you may have to apply herbicide, wait, and start over, literally from the ground up.
5. Realize that ANY pasture, unless you have 50 acres for one or two horses, can turn into a mudlot/drylot if the horses are out on it all the time. You'll need to plan for a sacrifice area, so that the main pasture can be closed to the horses when it's too wet, or when it needs to be rested. If you have horses that simply can't be allowed ANY grass, plan to have a large drylot that can serve as an exercise area.
6. Start thinking about how you're going to fence and crossfence your land, and how you can safely subdivide your pasture so as to rotate it effectively. Ideally, you would have several pastures, and allow the horses to graze each one for three weeks or so before moving them to the next one. This, too, is something you can discuss with your extension agent, who will be quite familiar with local conditions, stocking rates, pasture rotation, etc. For most pasture-reclaiming questions, your best friend in this endeavour is going to be your extension agent. Get in touch with him - or her - and try to arrange a site visit. Having an extension specialist walk your field with you is extremely useful.
7. Spring grass is the most sugar-rich grass and thus the most risky when it comes to grass founder. In some parts of the world, there can also be problems in summer and fall, but given your location, you shouldn't have to worry too much about the re-growth of grass that occurs when rain arrives after a long period of drought. I suppose it would be possible to plant a sort of "low-carb" pasture by using only prairie grasses, bluestem, and bermuda, but I don't know how well those would grow for you. They are definitely lower in sugar than some common pasture grasses (e.g. rye, fescue, orchardgrass), but seasonal sugar content may still be an issue. Even a "low sugar" grass, like some of the tropical grasses, can be dangerous in the spring when the grass is new and lush and your horse is first being turned out to pasture.
8. One way to allow most normal horses to enjoy full-time turnout on rich pasture is to invest in grazing muzzles. The "Best Friend" models are well-designed, comfortable and effective - so much so that you'll need to be sure to remove the muzzles twice a day for a few hours at a time, to allow the horses to eat the food they need.
9. Whatever the time of year and the condition of your grass, get in the habit of monitoring your horses. Be sure to check them - not just for obvious weight gain, or lameness, but for more subtle, earlier signs that they might be at risk for laminitis. A couple of times a day, check their feet for heat or an overly-strong pulse. If you find those signs, of if the horses stop walking around, or assume a rocking-horse stance with their front legs pushed far forward, get them OFF the pasture immediately and call the vet.
10. Here are a few good resources for you:
- Get a copy of Sandra Burger's excellent book: "A Horse Owner's Field Guide to Toxic Plants". I've recommended this for years, to every horse-owner and farm-owner I know. It's an invaluable resource.
- Did you know that you have a really fabulous area resource in western Washington? You do. It's called Horses for Clean Water. It's a terrific source of information about environmentally sensitive horsekeeping. Here's the website: http://www.horsesforcleanwater.com/ Get in touch with the director, Alayne Blickle (and tell her "hello" from me), find out what programs are being offered, when you can visit model farms in your area, and what educational materials are currently available.
- I advise anyone who is buying land for horses to invest in a copy of "Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage" by Cherry Hill. It will give you all sorts of useful ideas about how to set up your new place.
- Finally, there's another website you should investigate: http://www.safergrass.org/ . The site's owner, Katy Watts, is in a completely different climate from yours - high altitude and desert - but you should check out her site no matter where you are. She has done a lot of thinking about these issues, and a lot of good work collecting and compiling information about pastures, grass, and laminitis. Her site is worth visiting whether your concerns about sugar and carbohydrate levels of grasses and hays are hypothetical or immediate and real.
Creating and maintaining safe, productive pastures for your horses isn't easy, but it's worth the effort. Congratulations, and enjoy your acreage!
This article reprinted by special permission of Dr. Jessica Jahiel, from www.horse-sense.org
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