Perfect pastures as new grass starts to grow

It has been a wet and warm winter but hopefully your pasture will emerge from winter-use over the next month with minimal damage. 

With March approaching, longer hours of daylight and an increase in soil temperature will encourage spring grass growth. However, while the pasture has survived through the worst that winter can offer, it is important to continue to protect pasture from any further damage, particularly as March and April can bring snow, frost and heavy rain. A combination of these factors can lead to poached land, this not only looks unsightly but it can damage the soil structure and lead to stock health problems such as mud fever.

Here are some handy hints for pasture protection.

  1. Grass should be kept at a minimum length of 2cm (1in) to provide a protective coverage for the ground and help prevent soil compaction, poaching and damage to grass roots. 
  2. Resting and rotating pasture by adapting grazing times and stocking levels as necessary will help prevent serious damage.
  3. Carry out a soil analysis - this will determine the acidity (pH) and soil nutrient levels, allowing for advance planning in the event of a fertiliser application being necessary in spring. The ideal pH for horse pasture is 6.5. Acidic soil (with a low pH) may result in weak, patchy grass growth. Alkaline soil (with a high pH) can result in some elements in the soil becoming unavailable, resulting in grass suffering a deficiency. If a soil test reveals that soil is acidic, an application of lime will help to restore the correct pH. Three other major elements are necessary in balanced proportion for the soil to support optimum grass growth: nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Nitrogen encourages stem and leaf growth whilst phosphate and potash are responsible for root growth and grass health. If these elements are not in balance, it may be necessary to apply fertiliser.

Good fertilising practice

It is important to assess the soil before you apply fertiliser. Overuse of fertiliser leads to a loss of native grasses and plants, which provide important support for wildlife. The growth of dominant grasses - at the expense of native species - leads to a loss of biodiversity.

It is worth thinking about organic compound fertilisers (e.g. farmyard manure) as they contain a variety of nutrients which are released slowly into the soil over a long time period, resulting in steady grass growth. In addition, the organic matter improves soil condition.

In-organic fertilisers (either straights or compound) are released rapidly into the soil. This can lead to rich lush grazing that is unsuitable for horses and ponies as it can cause growth disorders, digestive problems and laminitis. 

Semi-organic fertilisers combine the positive benefits of in-organic fertilisers by allowing accurate rates of nitrogen, phosphate and potash to be applied in accordance with soil analysis results, but with the advantage of being released slowly into the soil due to the organic content. The use of organic fertiliser should be favoured when possible, but when soil test results identify a particular element requirement, a semi-organic fertiliser may be used as a compromise.

Permanent grasslands and their importance

Permanent grasslands that have not been "improved" in the past (for example through reseeding, drainage work or the application of artificial fertilisers) are an important landscape feature and provide a valuable wildlife habitat. Such pastures are in decline across the UK, but through careful management livestock keepers can play a role in maintaining any existing unimproved grassland they control, and ensuring other grassland is not unnecessarily improved. Maintaining low grazing pressure and rotating grazing areas may allow permanent pastures to remain productive without the use of fertiliser.

Spring watch for too much grass growth

We might welcome spring grass growth but it is important to monitor it carefully. For horse and pony owners it is important to watch out for conditions that can cause laminitis.

This condition is known to be triggered by fructans - water-soluble carbohydrates - that are present in grass. Traditional meadow grasses are best for horses and ponies susceptible to laminitis, as they tend to contain less fructans. However, levels can still elevate quickly when grass becomes stressed, for example as a result of drought or frost. Grass stores higher levels of fructans in stems than in leaves. 

Mechanically topping grass or grazing during the growing season with sheep increases the leaf to stem ratio and therefore decreases the fructans available to grazing horses and ponies.