THE rising cost of living is likely to hit hard. Horse owners will have to navigate the rising cost of feed and bedding in addition to their own living costs. While there is no magic cure, there are some small measures that can be taken to save money when managing horses.
Your pasture can be one of your greatest assets; a well-managed pasture can reduce feed cost, while keeping your horse happy and healthy, reducing costly vet visits. While those that keep horses on a working farm may be able to take advantage of large machinery and regular investment in pasture management, many horses are kept on small holdings and may not have access to the facilities found on a farm. Here we outline some simple pasture management techniques that require minimal or no investment.
Rotational grazing is the best way to manage horse pasture, as it mimics the way grazing animals behave in the wild. Grasses have adapted to short periods of intense grazing, followed by a long recovery period and grow best under these conditions. Ideally only 1/3 or less of the land should be grazed at any one time, allowing the majority of land time to recover between grazing bouts. Land can be divided using electric tape into three or more paddocks of suitable size for the number of horses in the herd.
In ideal conditions, where the pasture is mostly low yielding meadow grass and the horse is accustomed to ad lib grazing, horses should be put in the pasture when grass is 15-20cm high. This is when sugar is lowest and fibre is highest. However, sugar content is variable with grass species and weather conditions, so that would need to be taken into consideration when deciding which horse/s to allow to graze and for how long.
Grass should not be grazed below an average height of 5cm, this is when it becomes stressed and produces more sugars, which can result in health problems such as laminitis. When grass is roughly 5cm long, horses should be moved to the next grazing area. Rotational grazing has been shown to be better for grass and soil health and reduce parasites, such as worms, as larval stages will die in hot/ cold conditions when pasture is resting. Rotational grazing can be used in conjunction with strip grazing or limited grazing where appropriate.
Mulching is a way to encourage grass growth where there are patches of soil exposed. Exposed soil in a pasture represents an area of land that is not being utilised for feed and can cause dust, mud and erosion. Mulching the area protects the soil and creates a better growing environment for grass. The mulch used can be anything that is available, including old hay, shavings, non-horse manure or non-toxic tree mulch.
An option for those with higher numbers of horses is to place a round bale of good meadow grass hay in the bare spot and allow three to four horses to eat the hay over four to five days. Seeds from the bale will drop to the ground and any hay that is not eaten in that time is not wasted, it will act as mulch and aid the growth of grass.
Once the area has been mulched, it will need to be temporarily fenced off until the grass has become established. If not using hay as a seed source, then scatter a horse appropriate seed mix through the mulch to encourage the right type of growth. As the plants grow, any weeds can be easily pulled out by hand.
Foggage also known as standing hay
If you are fortunate enough to have an area of higher ground that is reasonably dry in the winter, foggage is a cost effective option for feeding over the winter period. Foggage is an ancient system of grazing that eliminates the need for costly outside inputs.
If grass is allowed to grow long (>20cm) over the summer and go to seed, rather than cutting for hay to use in the winter with all the associated costs of cutting and baling, this grass can be grazed over winter. Horses that are not accustomed to ad lib feeding are likely to gorge when given access to pasture. These horses and those at high risk for disorders, such as laminitis should be gradually introduced to the pasture over the later part of winter. This is when the grass contains the least amount of energy and the highest amount of fibre.
Ideally, this grass can be strip grazed to make it last longer and reduce damage by trampling. This method of winter feeding reduces the need to store and carry hay and improves horse health by reducing their exposure to the dust and spores associated with hay. Finally, this method mulches the ground and, if left to rest over the summer, should return ready for the next winter.
These are just a few low cost ideas that may help to get the most out of pasture and reduce feed costs for the coming years. An assessment of the size and type of land, along with the numbers in the herd being managed may highlight other strategies for improvement. Good pasture management can save time and money and also improve the health of your horse. There are many more options out there to suit equine properties of all shapes and sizes.
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