Paddock maintenance: protecting an investment

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Demand for land is massive – and growing. Land is finite in quantity – in fact, according to the Environment Agency, we shall lose some land as a result of rising sea levels. We have a housing crisis, the population is growing and we need to produce more food. One of the most buoyant property sectors relates to ‘Equestrian Properties’; we should be clear that not everyone seeking a house with land is a horse owner and this puts the importance and value of horse paddocks into sharp, sharp perspective. Looking after pasture is not only related to equine health and wellbeing, it is also concerned with protecting an investment.

Retailers are bombarded with requests for advice and information – and this increasingly includes pasture maintenance. Most retailers are probably well aware that horse owners don’t always give sufficient thought to the various ‘jobs’ they require pasture to perform:

  • A safe exercise area. ‘Safe’ includes the suitability of fencing and gates and freedom from poisonous shrubs and plants. It is also important to take the trauma-reducing properties of the turf into account – especially in relation to paddocks in which youngstock is turned out. We want grass to cushion the horse’s joints (especially in the case of young animals) while also providing the right degree of nutrition. There are no grass species that adequately fulfil both objectives – it’s all a matter of selecting the best compromise to fulfil specific needs.
  • An area where horses can socialise.
  • A source of food, which will vary according to the needs of individual horses.
  • Shelter from inclement weather. Most horses prefer to take advantage of natural shelter in the form of trees and thick hedging as opposed to manmade structures such as field shelters.
  • Depending on the amount of land available, an area for schooling on the flat/over jumps.
  • Again depending on the amount of land available, the production of hay.
  • As far as possible, paddocks should be available for use 7 x 7 x 52.

Ensuring pasture fulfils these needs adequately demands very careful planning and regular maintenance.

Changing requirements

Knowledge and understanding of grazing in relation to equine nutrition and wellbeing has come a long way in the last few years and it continues to evolve. Once upon a time a bright green, flawless sward consisting of high protein grasses and clovers was considered the optimum; today it would be regarded as a health and welfare hazard. It used to be commonplace for horse owners to obtain paddock maintenance advice from agricultural contractors but more often than not, their knowledge was confined to the production of grass for farm livestock. The very high protein grasses needed for milk and meat production increase the risk of horses and ponies developing laminitis, osteocondrosis and other management related problems. And of course, the wrong forage can also be the root cause of bad behaviour and napping!

With a growing population, equestrian land is at risk

Horse owners planning to reseed their horse pasture to increase nutritional value and lower the carbohydrate intake will need grass seed mix needs that contain old grass species, legumes and herbs. Generally defined as ‘meadow mixes’, even these often include constituents that aren’t always suitable. Indicating the importance of selecting the right grass seed mixes: a lot of mare owners don’t know about Fescue Toxicity. Included in a lot of grass mixes blended for equines, most horses can eat fescue without suffering any problem, but pregnant mares should not be allowed to graze it at all. Fescue contains an endophyte that affects a number of hormones in the mare’s system potentially resulting in decrease in milk production, prolonged pregnancy, a difficult birth, abortion or a stillbirth.

Some horse owners may want to lay down new paddocks and others may need to refurbish or refresh existing pasture. The best advice to give them is only use the services of a contractor who specialises in equestrian-related work. As well as sowing a new paddock or re-seeding specific areas of an existing paddock, the contractor should also be able to discuss drainage, fencing and all the ancillary issues. A lot of contractors confine their activities to dealing with the land, but they usually have colleagues/contacts or subcontractors who can deal with ancillary requirements.

Loosing space

The BHS recommends a ratio of two horses per hectare on permanent grazing but, as demand for land increases and prices go up, this will become more and more difficult to fulfil. Being forced to reduce the amount of land per horse means that management considerations will be ever more important. Something else that is fundamental; often the land bought with a property – or rented – is far from ideal for keeping horses. If the topography and type of soil are ‘unhelpful’, paddocks will almost certainly require a much greater degree of maintenance. Weather conditions have a huge influence and can make it very difficult to maintain paddocks in good order. This year we have had above average rainfall in some parts of the country, consequently very flat paddocks on heavy clay soil have been badly waterlogged. Later in the year some parts of the country may suffer problems associated with near-drought. And of course, it’s important not to overlook the damage that badgers and other wildlife cause. It’s a fact that owners who keep their horses at home often suffer similar problems to farmers and other land owners: managing land frequently involves mitigation rather than cure.

What about water?

For some horse owners, carrying water out to the field each day isn’t a feasible option so will benefit from understanding the different drinking options available. Catherine Jackson, Internal Marketing Executive at JFC Agri explains, “The recommended way to supply water to a paddock is via a water trough that is linked to a bore hole or a mains water supply. The price of a durable plastic water trough can range from £80 – £150. Small paddock double reservoir water troughs can range from a capacity of 100 litre to 400 litres. The average horse will consume 14-40 litres of water per day, so although owners will be able to purchase a strong 15 litre plastic bucket for approximately £8 per bucket, they may not be supplying their horses with the adequate amount of water.”

Automatic troughs are a worthwhile investment but need correct maintenance

In terms of installation, Catherine continues: “The installation process for the water troughs is a straight forward task – where customers have an existing water supply, all they must do is couple the trough to the water supply. The positioning of the water trough must be on a level surface to ensure the trough can refill correctly.”

Although automatic troughs will provide a constant water supply, remind users they need to be checked on a daily basis and they will still require cleaning! “Water sources should be cleaned as regularly as possible,” adds Catherine. “This is something that should be done more frequently in hard water areas, as the particles in the water supply may settle on the bottom of the trough and create a sediment, as well as in warmer temperatures – bacteria feeds off warmer climates and any algae in a water trough would thrive in warmer temperatures.”

Enlisting help

Some customers will undoubtedly want to discuss ‘going it alone’ in regard to managing paddocks but unless they have plenty of available time and own or have access to mechanical equipment, they are probably better advised to leave the job to the professionals. Small plots of land, however, could possibly be managed manually. Whatever the decision about how the work is going to be undertaken, consideration should be given to the needs of wildlife. Most farmers and landowners are leaving a strip of land to grow ‘wild’ adjacent to hedgerows and more and more horse owners are following suit. Grass and herbs will grow taller in a naturalised areas so advise customers they need to be especially careful when checking for poisonous plants.

Contractors will probably want to produce a diary plan outlining the proposed timetable for the year. Advise customers to discuss their budget with contractors at the outset – and to outline any particular problems associated with the land. They should ensure the quotation is fully itemised so that, if necessary, they can pick and choose what to commission. Some contractors are prepared to give special discounts when they are pre-booked on an annual basis. Normally contractors will include topping, harrowing and rolling in their basic plan and will add ‘extras’ according to individual needs. A lot of grazing land is deficient in minerals and this can be rectified but – once again – it is something a specialist contractor needs to undertake.

Like farmers, could your customers keep a stip of land for wildlife

Warn customers against ‘drop in out-of-the-blue’ offers to fertilise fields. The services may appear very good value but nothing is ‘cheap’ if it is unsatisfactory. Needless to say, it’s very important that retailers don’t get caught up in recommending contractors who simply don’t have the right degree of knowledge and experience! If and when things go wrong, the customer will lose confidence in the retailer who provided the recommendation!

The location of field gates is another important factor. Obviously the worst possible location is at the bottom of a hill or steep slope down which water will drain and pool around the gate. Horses tend to congregate around gateways at times they associate with being fed or taken in for the night and, during wet weather, this inevitably results in a sea of deep mud. Contractors dealing with paddock maintenance should be able to provide specialist advice involving various potential solutions. Similar problems are often associated with areas around water troughs. In an emergency situation a temporary improvement could be effected by tipping a load of woodchip but this will only alleviate the problem – not provide a cure. It’s worth pointing out to clients that, in general, contractors will prefer to undertake all remedial work when the ground is dry. It makes sense for customers to obtain more than one quotation – and also to ask for testimonials/references. Costs will very much depend on the options selected.

Talking taste

Horses are notoriously ‘difficult’ grazers in that their taste buds – palates – vary enormously and this can result in jungle-like un-grazed areas while other areas suffer over-grazing that results in near-bare patches. Regarding making hay – while the sun shines of course! An obvious point: if the pasture largely comprises high protein rye grasses and clovers, any hay made will have the same constituents. For one reason or another this is often misunderstood by horse owners!

Another hugely important point: some poisonous plants, for example ragwort and foxglove, are unpalatable whilst they are growing but become sweeter and less bitter when they are drying/dried but they will lose none of their toxicity. Leon Fynn, General Manager of Fynalite adds, “Keeping on top of weeds in pastures has all kinds of effects to equine nutrition, worming and stability of the biosecurity surrounding pastureland. Therefore, it is down to the horse owners to maintain healthy, nutritional and toxic free environments for all equines to live, work and play in. It is reported by the Blue Cross that during hay making season, anything as little as 1-5kg of ragwort alone in hay can be fatal to horses and ponies.

“Manually pulling weeds with tools such as the Fynalite Multi Weeda, eradicates the need to use hazardous chemicals on pastureland, which can be toxic to animals and humans. Removing the whole weed at the right time can stop seeding, preventing the spread of the weeds across pastureland and gardens.”

Raising awareness

Putting on a Paddock Maintenance Event is likely to attract a very good take-up – not only horse owners and yard managers but also riding and Pony Club members as well as individuals studying for BHS and other examinations. Contractors, machinery specialists, seed merchants, drainage experts, hedging and ditching professionals, fencing and gate suppliers – and others – could be asked to pay a commission on orders that emanate from the event. Of course, it is essential to restrict participation to businesses that are offering first class services!

Encourage customers to keep on top of weeds before they go to seed

Retailers are used to dealing with customers who are very knowledgeable in some areas but totally ignorant – or naive – in others! Without patronising them, it’s important to avoid pitfalls into which horse owners often plummet. The good retailer frequently prevents many a disaster – and underwrites a lot of successes!