Healing the Land
“I want to be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.” “A time may come soon," said he, "when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Many people consider the land they own to be theirs to do with as they please. In ignorance they make poor land management decisions that will have consequences for generations to come. Throughout Oregon I see evidence of this abuse, especially among small farm owners. There is no getting around it, horses (or all large livestock really) are extremely hard on the land.
When buying property the minimum ratio recommended for horse owners is an acre of grazing per horse. However, this ratio does not take into consideration the quality of the grazing i.e. whether the land has been overgrazed, or regularly fertilized, reseeded and rested in the non-growing winter months. In Oregon another consideration that affects the quality of the grazing is whether livestock is left out on pasture during the wet season (November through April). When you run horses on wet land you can quickly expect them to destroy your grazing and turn your pastures into mud pits.
Considering that just over an acre of our property was taken up by the farm house, barn, and arenas, this left us with 9 acres of grazing land. This meant our 12 stall barn could in fact (and should if we were going to be wise stewards) only accommodate 9 horses.
As fall was fast approaching, we realized that we would need to create a sacrifice area for winter turn out. We had our contractor dig out 6 inches of topsoil to the right of the barn and followed the same procedure as we had for our arenas, laying down 3 inches of 3/4 minus on top of barrier cloth, followed by 3 inches of 1/4 minus crushed rock. We then compacted it well and divided it into three small paddocks. At the same time we extended this treatment into the stall run outs and then topped the rock base with rubber mats.
This treatment gave us mud free, daily winter turn out for all our horses. We were careful to maintain these paddocks by meticulously picking up manure every day and dragging them once a week along with our arenas. The quickest way to ruin your investment is by feeding hay in these areas and leaving manure to become churned up with the gravel.
This done we turned our attention to our pastures. The fall and spring are good times to feed and reseed the land. And with horses, you have an unlimited supply of black gold (more about that in my next blog)! Our land is on a flood plain and a third of the pastures sit under water for 4 months of the year. This tends to leach the soil and kill the grass leaving swamp grass and weeds in its wake. We spread manure from our muck pile over the pastures in the fall to add nutrients back into the soil. In the spring we reseed with a mix of cool season pasture grass seed and lightly harrow the pastures. We then allow the land to sit and let the spring rains and warmer temps do the rest. Later in the spring, as the weather begins to dry out, we spot spray for weeds as we see problem areas developing and mow regularly to discourage their regrow and encourage grass growth.
Our horses are turned out on pasture all day in the dry months (May through October). We protect our land from over grazing by bringing them into the barn at night, and rotating the herd through three large paddocks. Horses are notoriously picky grazers. They will graze certain areas of your paddocks down to the roots and leave long clumps of grass untouched. Once they have grazed through a paddock we move them off the grass, drag the manure to spread it (piles of manure will leave sour patches that the horses won't touch), and cut the grass to even out the tough unpalatable clumps that they haven't grazed.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, if you own horses and land, you are a grass farmer! Carefully maintaining and protecting this precious resource will benefit you financially (feeding hay year round is very expensive!), and it will benefit your horses as they have access to mud free turn out and good quality pasture. Expect the occasional border to put pressure on you to turn their horses out year round, and then firmly resist. The average horse owner has no concept of pasture maintenance and their unicorn visions of their horses grazing on lush green pastures year round are just that - unicorn visions! If they threaten to move to another barn where they claim this is the case, wave them on their merry way. At the end of the day you will find plenty of reasonable individuals, who once you have explained your pasture management system to them (something I do with all my new borders), will be right on board.