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Grass Farmers: Managing Horse Properties in Drought

August 2018 by Jane and Stuart Myers
Jane and Stuart Myers are the dynamic duo behind www.equiculture.net - an educational movement informing on responsible, sustainable and ethical horse-keeping. Together, they have co-authored several books and recently launched an online course bringing Horse Management into the 21st Century.
Jane and Stuart Myers image by Linda Zupanc

During drought, fibre, essential for horses, becomes very expensive and difficult to obtain. All you can do in very dry conditions is damage control. Any improvements to your land need to take place during the good times to ensure your land is better able to handle the drought and will make a better recovery when the drought breaks.

When it’s dry...

Dry conditions are often coupled with hot weather or drying winds that increasingly dehydrate the plants so they shatter and eventually die if grazing animals are allowed to overgraze them during this time.

When the soil is dry, it is also hard and dusty. Hard ground jars the horses’ legs, whilst the dust causes eye and respiratory problems.

Prolonged dry conditions mean drought and, during drought, plants stop growing due to having no water.
You must aim to not reduce the plants below 5 cm in height in order to minimise land degradation. This will help protect the soil from harsh, dry weather.

This will also mean that there is enough leaf area remaining for the plants to make a rapid recovery when the rains return.

Caring for pasture during drought

Caring for pasture during drought involves reducing grazing pressure as much as possible during the dry period and for some time afterwards, in order to allow pastures to fully recover.
The better the state of the pasture at the time when you take the horses out, the quicker it will recover when it rains.

During drought, a farmer might decide to reduce stock numbers but most horse owners are unlikely to do this. In many cases, depending on the amount of horses compared to the amount of land, a drought may mean that horses have to be removed from the land completely and kept in surfaced holding yards, otherwise land degradation will occur.

Remember that if there is no grazing available you will also need to remove the horses from the land to protect the remaining plants and soil, otherwise, you will further compact and damage the soil, making recovery much more difficult.

Sacrifice areas

The term ‘sacrifice area’ means that part of the land is ‘sacrificed’ so that other areas have time to rest and recuperate. This would involve putting the horses in one paddock, or part of a paddock by using electric fencing, and allowing that area to be degraded (due to the high level of use), but keeping the majority of the land safe from degradation.

There are some things to keep in mind:

  • During drought conditions, ‘sacrifice areas’ can be used to great effect if you ‘mulch’ the area at the same time. This will mean the area comes out of the drought better than before.
  • Only ‘sacrifice’ land if there are no other areas that could be used instead, i.e. any land that has a surface, such as an old farm yard or an arena.
  • Sacrifice areas should be considered a short-term solution whilst a more permanent, surfaced holding yard is being constructed.

Roughage

During drought, grazing animals will have to be fed hay and, if necessary, supplemented with concentrated feed.

Feeding horses hay during a drought becomes increasingly problematic as the drought goes on because all types of horse feed, but especially hay, become increasingly expensive and may become virtually impossible to source.

Grass hay usually runs out sooner than legume hay such as lucerne. This is because grass is the hardest to grow during a drought. Legume hays are usually grown under irrigation, with water usually taken from underground sources. Ordinary grass hay paddocks are not usually set up for irrigation so, less grass is made during a drought.

Feeding horses during a drought will sometimes involve having to buy hay from sources that you would not normally use due to the risk of infecting your property with foreign weeds. This is where feeding hay in a surfaced holding yard or ‘sacrifice area’ becomes even more important.

If you have no other choice but to feed weedy hay due to this being all that is available, always feed it in yards or ‘sacrifice areas’. This way, you will more easily see any weeds that attempt to become established after the drought has broken, and you will be able to deal with them before they do.

Also, the weeds will not be integrated into your good pasture - a situation that is much harder to deal with.
If you live in an area that is likely to be affected by drought, it is a good idea to stock and store hay on your land, buying it when it is cheap, abundant and weed-free. This then reduces the effect of a drought for your land, and means that you will not have to rely on pasture as much. Doing this will save you a lot of money in the long run.

When a drought starts, aim to top up this reserve if possible - even though the hay may seem expensive, it will be nothing compared to what it may end up, as the price of hay can increase by ten times its usual value during a long drought.

And, you can always sell it to other horse owners in the unlikely event that you end up with too much.

Mulching

The term mulching has a variety of meanings but, in this case, it involves covering bare/compacted soil to protect it and to provide a medium for new plants to grow. Remember you should aim to never have bare soil.

Benefits of mulching

  • When an area of bare soil is covered in mulch, it is protected from the drying effects of the wind. Soil that would otherwise blow away because it is dry and has not plants to bind it, now stays on the land.
  • Water that arrives in that area is slowed down and held in the mulch, helping the mulch to decompose and soaking into the soil more easily, thus improving the compacted soil.
  • Mulch can be used to ‘smother’ weeds in some cases.
  • Mulch provides a cushioning layer between heavy objects, such as heavy machinery and horses, and the soil. But in order for the plants to grow back in that area, the horses/machinery will have to be temporarily removed.
  • If necessary, even while a paddock is in use, bare areas can be temporarily fenced off with electrified tape and then mulched. This allows the area to become established with new grass, without having to cope with pressure from horses at the same time.
  • As the mulch decomposes, it provides habitat for numerous species of insects, bacteria and fungi that are beneficial to the soil. This starts the process of re-introducing beneficial organisms back into the soil.
  • The decomposing mulch provides a medium for vegetation, such as pasture plants, to become established again. Handfuls of desirable pasture seeds can be thrown into the mulch once it starts to decompose.

Mulching can reap dividends with little or no extra outlay and any bare areas on a horse property should be covered with some form of mulch.

Essentially, mulch can be created from any form of organic matter. Common materials on a horse property include composted manure, shavings (or other bedding), shredded paper or old hay/straw.

Lawn mower clippings can also be used as long as horses do not have access to them until they have decomposed. After it rains, you can throw grass seeds into the mulch.

Composted manure should always be covered with another form of mulch. In dry weather, it will dry out too quickly and blow away before it has chance to do any good and, in wet weather it will wash away.

Avoid putting manure in a gateway - there is usually plenty there already! Only mulch a gateway if you are implementing The Equicentral System and the horses are never standing around the gateway. Otherwise, gateways need surfacing with gravel or other weather proof surface.

Mulching with round bales

A great way to mulch an area (when you have plenty of grass hay) is to feed clean (from weeds) grass hay round bales on bare areas to groups of four or five horses at a time. (If you have more horses, then have multiple round bales).

The horses will devour and spread the hay out to approximately a 15m circle, mixing it with their manure and urine.

This process is most effective when there are four or five horses, especially if it rains. The four to five days it will take for them to consume the hay means it will not go mouldy.

Use hay made from the type of grass you want on your land as it will carry many viable seeds.

The hay also needs to be low energy if the horses are prone to obesity and/or are not working because it is being fed ad/lib.

Even if it doesn’t rain for a long time, the mulch will still protect the previously bare soil until conditions become right for mulch decomposition and subsequent plant growth.

When the horses start hanging around where they can see you, you will know they have eaten the edible parts of the bale and it will be time to put another bale out on another bare patch - or remove the horses from the area. 

Many people are reluctant to feed round bales like this because they see it as ‘wastage’ - you should consider it an investment in the soil. Even in pure economic terms there is little wastage. Not only are round bales typically 40% cheaper than squares and, in terms of land renovation, it can be done by anyone, does not require special equipment, contractors or further outlay.

Others may be concerned about horses eating too much when fed ‘ad-lib’ but in that case, make sure the hay is low energy type or it has been tested for low levels of sugar and starch. 

Swales

Swales are barriers, placed along the contours of the ground, that slow water and give it more opportunity to soak into the soil. Traditionally, swales involve cutting ditches and mounding earth but you can achieve the same result by simply placing items such as cut and laid vegetation, bundles of branches, old hay/straw bales, logs etc. on the ground.

When the rains return

Once it starts to rain, horses must be removed from any mulched areas. At this point the mulch will break down quickly and the plants that start growing in it do not need to be disturbed.

Resist the temptation to turn horses out until the pasture has fully recovered, and start with just a few hours at a time.

Due to being stressed by the drought and accumulating sugars and starches as a coping mechanism, this grass will be very high in sugars and starch until it has had time to recover and grow properly - i.e., use those energy reserves to grow new leaves.

Horses will gorge on recovering grass because they will not have had access to fresh grass for a while. Many cases of laminitis occur following a drought or dry period due to the combination of the plants being stressed and the horses being desperate for green feed.