A muddy disaster! What can I do to help my grass grow this spring? H&H asks an expert

  • It’s that time of year when horse owners are gearing up for the arrival of spring grass, but when does grass start growing in the UK? After a particularly wet, dark and miserable winter , it’s no surprise that our paddocks resemble vast pool of squelchy mud, rather than the luscious green pastures of our dreams.

    What can horse owners actually do to optimise grass growth this spring? We talk to grassland specialist Sara Gregson from Talking Grass, who puts us on the right track.

    How has the winter affected this year’s crop of spring grass?

    “The spring this year is very late coming,” says Sara. “And it follows a very wet, late 2017 summer and autumn, so many paddocks are muddy and the soil is damaged and compacted so water can’t drain away.

    “It has been raining more than usual this spring — for example, Gloucestershire normally expects 50mm in March, but had 125mm this year.

    Grass starts growing when the soil temperatures reach between 5° to 6°C, and temperatures have stayed stubbornly low this spring. Wet soil is also colder than dry soil, which is why the grass is not growing yet.

    “With a bit of sunshine, grass will start growing very quickly, so be prepared for a rush of growth when it comes.”

    What do horse owners often overlook when it comes to growing grass?

    Horse owners need to decide what the primary purpose of the field or paddock is, according to Sara. Is it to provide a food source or is it just a loafing area?

    “If it is loafing/exercise area, the grass needs to comprise of amenity-style grasses that are dense and knit together into a carpet-like surface. Areas subject to excessive wear, such as fence lines where horses march up and down, will need higher grass seeding rates seed than the rest of the field,” she says.

    “If the paddock is to provide the horse’s food, then the field must be sown with a purpose-built seeds mixture such as Oliver Seeds Paddock Mix or Horse Herb Grazing Mix. The latter has a wide variety of good plants for horses in it, including late perennial ryegrass, meadow fescue, cocksfoot, timothy, strong creeping red fescue, crested dogstail and creeping bent.”

    Good to know: “Changing what is growing in a horse paddock depends on whether the paddock is owned or rented,” adds Rod Bonshor of Oliver Seeds. “If owned, the horse owner can get a local farmer or contractor to come in to plough and reseed the field and get exactly what they want. If someone else owns it, there would have to be some negotiation on what is sown and who pays to get it done.”

    What can I do now to encourage growth?

    “To get the best out of any field, it needs to be nurtured and managed,” says Sara. “If the field cannot be reseeded from scratch, paddock renovation is the answer. This will place new grass seeds into the muddy, bare patches and challenge weeds, such as docks and nettles coming in and taking over.”

    Sara’s blue-print for over-seeding horse paddocks:

    • Check the nutrient status of the soil — grass, like all ‘crops’ needs feeding to perform to its best. Soil samples can be collected and sent off to a lab for analysis (cost around £15). This will tell whether the main nutrients of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) or potash (K) are lacking and also whether the soil is acid or alkaline. Grass prefers to grow in alkaline soil. If it is too acidic, having lime applied can really boost grass growth.
    • Break up soil — if the soil is very compacted and feels hard to walk over, it will need breaking up to allow water and air to permeate throughout the soil profile. Local farmers or contractors might have machinery like a sward slitter which can be dragged through the field to open up the upper layers.
    • Remove all weeds — by hand or by spraying if there are too many to dig out.

    If you have machinery…

    • Remove all surface growth to leave 5cm of grass by mowing or getting some sheep in to graze it down.
    • Grass harrow the field in both directions to remove surface trash and moss.
    • Sow the seed by using a broadcasting machine (throwing it in all directions) or direct drilling (in rows). The aim is to get ‘soil to seed’ contact. Do not sow seeds deeper than 1cm.
    • Sow at a seed rate of 7-10kg/acre, but be prepared to increase to the full sowing rate of 14kg/acre if sward damage is extensive or the plant population is very thin.
    • Roll the field in both directions with a ring roller to ensure good seed to soil contact.
    • New plants will need a supply of phosphate and potash to develop new roots. Applying about 2x50kg bags/acre of a low N, high P and K fertiliser will really help to get things going.

    If you don’t have machinery…

    • Use a lawn mower or graze with sheep to produce a short sward and remove all clippings.
    • Use a garden rake to remove the surface trash and loosen the soil surface.
    • Broadcast the seed by hand throwing the seed in several directions.
    • Sow at a seed rate of 3 to 5 grams/m2.
    • Roll with a garden roller or simply tread the seed in to ensure good contact with the soil.
    • Fertilise as above.

    In both scenarios and depending on the weather conditions, Sara says the grass should germinate within two weeks. “Keep horses off the newly reseeded pasture until the grass is strong enough to withstand them — possibly two to three months.”

    How much will it cost approximately?

    Reseeding (using contractor)

    £/ha (£/acre)

    Overseeding (using contractor)

    £/ha   (£/acre)

    Getting rid of old sward/sprayed off with herbicide £35 (£14.28)
    Spraying weeds £30 (£12.24)
    Plough & press £70 (£28.57)
    Soil tillage £67 (£27.34)
    Ring rolling x 2 £40   (£16.32) Grass harrowing x2

    £46 (£18.77)

    Drill grass seed and harrow £31 (£12.65) £31 (12.65)
    Ring roll £20 (£8.16) £20 (£8.16)
    Seed cost 38kg/ha Paddock Mix

    £140 (£57.14)

    25kg/ha Paddock Mix

    £93 (£37.95)

    Are there any potential horse health risks to using seeds on the grass?

    “There are no health risks to horses of rejuvenating paddocks. It will make the grasses stronger, healthier and more nutritious,” says Sara.

    What types of weeds grow when the grass is in such a condition (wet and poached)?

    “Weeds are a frequent problem in overgrazed and neglected horse paddocks. While horses relish mixed swards to graze, weeds such as ragwort, thistles, docks, nettles, buttercups and dandelions are not to be encouraged,” Sara adds.

    “Horses urinate and defecate in the same areas of a field, which often have tall, coarse grasses and weeds that have been stimulated by over-supply of nutrients and lack of grazing.

    “Weeds easily colonise areas where there is bare and damaged soil. Where a wide range of weeds such as buttercups, dandelions and docks, are a problem, a new herbicide for use in horse paddocks, called Envy, from Dow AgroSciences can be used.

    “This needs to be applied through a tractor-mounted or self-propelled boom sprayer. Horses need to be taken out of the field for seven days after treatment — which is a lot less time than for many herbicides.

    “If paddock owners want to apply herbicide with a knapsack sprayer, GrazonPro is one of a limited number of products that can be applied using this method. It gives excellent control of docks, thistles, nettles and also brambles, gorse and broom.

    “Envy and GrazonPro are classed as professional use pesticides. This means they can be bought by anyone, but can only be applied by people who have completed appropriate city and guilds/National Proficiency Test Council (NPTC) courses.

    “Most paddock owners will contract out their spraying to local certified farmers or contractors. To help find one visit naac.co.uk.”

    Managing toilet sites

    “Horses urinate and defecate in the same areas of a field and will not graze there. This may be natural worm control, as these toilet areas contain 500 times the number of infective larvae compared to the rest of the paddock,” says Sara.

    “Latrines must be managed to stop them spreading. Harrowing undertaken on a hot summy day will spread and breakdown the dung and dry out the worms, killing them. But it is essential to rest the paddock after harrowing and to follow a sound veterinary-led worming regime with your horses.”

    What can horse owners be doing to ensure grass growth is better next spring ?

    “Good grassland management is required throughout the year to prevent both under-grazing and over-grazing. This will allow the grass to get through the winter to perform well again next year,” says Sara.

    “Using an electric fence to sub-divide the field into smaller sections and rotating the horses around gives each area the chance to rest and recover.

    “Horses should be moved on to the next section when the height of the grass has been grazed down to 2.5cm and not come back until it has grown back to between 8 and 12cm.

    “If the autumn comes wet again, stable the horses earlier than normal to prevent soil damage and poaching, which would reduce the amount of grass that will grow in spring 2019 and encourage colonization by weeds.”

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