Part 1 of a 3 part series on biological pasture management for horse properties.

There are many commercial manufactured feeds for horses available. Horse feed companies promote their muesli or pelleted feeds in colourful bags and many horse owners see these as the ultimate feed for horses to improve health and performance, but… if we go back to basics, what is the most important ingredient in the horse’s diet?

What keeps a horse a healthy horse?

The horse evolved primarily as a grazing herbivore, eating a diet based on fibre, mainly grass. Grass-only diets are usually not sufficient to maintain the working horse, and as a result, cereals, cereal by-products and oils have been added to the majority of equine diets. These have many benefits but can also potentially cause a lot of health problems.

Fresh grass and conserved forages are the most important ingredients in your horse’s diet and should be your first focus if you think about feeding strategies to maintain health and improve your horse’s performance.

This article will describe the role of fibre in the diet of the horse and will illustrate biodynamic pasture management to obtain the right combination of grass species and to maximize the nutrient content of your grass.

The role of fibre in diet of the horse

Horses are non-ruminant herbivores with a continual microbial fermentation within the caecum and colon. Herbivores, because of the symbiotic relationship with microorganisms, are able to gain energy indirectly from fibrous materials i.e. non-starch polysaccharides (NSP). The microorganisms in their digestive systems are able to break down the plant polymers to monomers and oligomers primarily by exogenous microbial enzymes. The products of this hydrolysis process are engulfed by microbes and converted to pyruvate in intracellular metabolism. Pyruvate is converted into volatile fatty acids (VFA’s: propionate, butyrate and acetate), CO2 and methane.  The microbes cannot fully utilize these products. However the host animals, horses, are able to absorb and gain energy from VFAs.

Today most horses are used for sports and a grass-only diet is usually not adequate to cover energy demands. Many commercial manufactured pelleted feeds are added to equine diets to supply the horse with energy, protein and micronutrients, but are based on cereal grains containing abundant starch. Starch plays a minor role in the natural diet of the horse; as they are grazing herbivores and receive most carbohydrates in the form of fructans and non-starch polysaccharides (NSP).

Several studies associate excess feeding of grain concentrates with a number of digestive and metabolic disorders, including, acidosis, laminitis, gastric ulcers, developmental orthopedic disease and some forms of exertional rhabdomyolysis. However, it should also be stated that excess amount of fructans from lush pastures can also cause these digestive and metabolic disorders. To achieve optimal hind gut health, fibre intake should be maximised and the intake of simple sugars and starch should be minimised. Providing your horse with quality grasses and roughage is essential for an optimal nutrient supply. So have good look at your pasture. What can you do to get the right combination of grass species and maximize nutrients for your horse.

Biodynamic pasture management

Farming and soil quality

200 years ago pasture management techniques were introduced from Europe and the mother country England, from a landscape far different to the one we know in Australia. Farmers began clearing and ploughing land, draining wetlands. After World War 2 came the Green Revolution and chemical salt based fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. These changes had a profound effect on the soil quality.

As a result of ploughing, soil and nutrients where lost through soil oxidation and erosion. Exposed soil ran off the land or was blown away to sea by rain and strong desert winds. Multinational fertiliser companies started to promote their fertilisers to improve the soil and pasture quality, but these salt based fertilisers make the soil poorer, and initiated a new problem; weeds. To control weeds herbicides were invented and sprayed at anything that was not the crop or pasture of choice.

Over the years environmental concerns are prompting both researchers and growers to look at alternative farming methods that offer good yields and profits while at the same time reducing the use of chemical inputs. This was the start of what has been coined as Prescription Farming. Prescription Farming means applying inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and irrigation water with more precision than has generally been used. Farmers routinely apply fertilisers using an average rate based on a field’s past yield and condition. Even though used with more precision,  fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides will always have a dramatic effect on the soil quality. Soil should be full of life – roots, microbes, fungi and insects. If you place fertiliser or herbicides on one spot what will happen with the soil system on that particular spot and around it? Will this improve your pasture and nutrient content?

The role of weeds in the management of your pastures

The reason weeds grow in your pasture is that you have POORLY managed soil or no topsoil at all. Go and grab a spade right now, go to your most degraded paddock! Could you even get the shovel in? Did you dig up clay or straight subsoil? If your topsoil is not black, dark brown, have more than 25 earth worms per spade and over 200mm thick even on hilly country, then you need to read on! (Note: Red volcanic soil is not topsoil, if you have straight red soil it is subsoil caused by past management, the topsoil wasa probably eroded down a creek and out to the ocean.)

With the spraying of Glyphosphate based herbicides, pesticides and fungicides we start killing the essential life in the soil that grows soil and looks after your plants. The definition of ‘cide’ (Latin) means a suffix; kill, killer; murder, to cause death, slayer; cutter; “to cut down”. By using fungicides we start losing all beneficial fungi that breaks down organic matter like weeds. Weeds are hyper accumulators of minerals from the soil which fungi convert to plant available trace minerals, which then become available to your horse in the pasture he ingests. Fungi, along with beneficial bacteria and microbes, forms complex associations with the plant, whereby the plant provides sugars down to the roots from photosynthesis. In turn, fungi and microbes help plants absorb nutrients and water. Fungi and microbes form a symbiotic association with the roots of nearly all plants to help them grow.

Chemical (prescription) farming and poor pasture management lead to poor quality grass and can cause health problems for horses due to the highly toxic Anaerobic (No Oxygen) soils. This leads  owners to a constant cycle of increased costs of buying feeds and calling the vet.

Simply looking at a paddock from a distance over time a trained eye can instantly identify the condition and what your soil is doing or not doing. Deep tap rooted weeds like thistles indicate hard compacted soils. Where shallow fine surface roots indicate that the soil has no structure (the surface roots are trying to keep the soil together). Weeds in pasture should be looked at as tools, and can be effectively used to speed up topsoil generation and fertility of horse pastures.

All horse owners’ small and large need to ask themselves:

  1. Are my pastures and management or lack of, affecting the health of my horse?
  2. Do I have the skills to improve my pasture management or will I revert to feeding my horse more of the ‘fast food’ manufactured diets?

Good pasture management can assist with maximising the nutrient content of your grasses. Fresh feeds and roughage are the best diet for your horse and will also reduce your feeding costs. With pasture planning you can increase soil fertility and grow your own forage systems.

Increased life in your soils, will then naturally increase the diversity of grass species through birds, animals and insects dropping seed on their travels across your pasture.

“Weeds CANNOT grow out of control in healthy soil full stop”

One of the ways to get the soil healthy again is by composting all animal waste, home kitchen waste and paper and old hay. Development of simple composting methods such as making compost tea with your compost, growing fungi, good bacteria and soil microbes, can improve your soil quality and can even be added to your horses water in small amounts for your horse’s digestive health.