Home and Shop Companion 0068
Home and Shop Companion 0068

letter from a small corner of far away

Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how dry it had been in April, but since then it seems to have rained every day. Every weed seed seems to have germinated, which is great where the garden plants have not yet been planted out, but not so great where seeds have already been sown. At the moment it is still too soft to walk a horse in the vegetable patches. The grass, however, is putting on some growth and now, at the middle of May, the temperatures are nearly up to the May average, whereas a week ago, it felt more like early April. Now the grass is growing, it is the time of year when the grass is at its most lush and when the horses need the least amount of feed, even when in full work. I remember being told about the horses at Adnams Brewery in Southwold, on the Suffolk coast, which were turned out to eat grass on the salt marshes in May for a month or so, without any supplementary feeding, even though they were still in regular work taking beer from the town centre brewery to the edge-of-town distribution depot. Even if they lost condition, they still thought it good to get the oats out of their system for a while, which horses almost seem to become addicted to.

Of my horses, Molly is still on some hard feed to put some flesh on her slightly bony frame as she came out of winter, as well as hay, and any grass she can reach along the edges of the track which goes round the edge of the field. Having had laminitis, I don’t want it to flare up again, and this is the time of year when that would be most likely. Lucy, meanwhile, spends a few hours social time with Molly during the day, but otherwise she is on grass. I keep her confined behind an electric fence, moving it twice a day to give her an extra few square yards, but even on these restricted amounts she is still putting on weight.

Unless horses are in consistent work, grazing can be a bit challenging at this time of the year, especially with good doers like Percherons. The common tactic is to keep them on short grass, but very short grass is also the highest in sugars, so is not very good for the horses, the grass or for the humus levels in the soil. The problem in relation to the grass growth is that unlike cattle which leave some leaves as they wrap their tongues around it, the horses nip it off to the ground, especially when confined to a small area, so the grass has to use its reserves to grow completely new leaves, whereas cattle-grazed grass can immediately use the remaining leaves to continue to photosynthesise and grow.

In late summer and autumn, it is easier because the grass is less nutritious, so I give Lucy a larger patch which she grazes less tightly, though she always has a greater area which she has previously grazed, to run into should she feel the need. If she is in one of the long avenues between the trees I planted last year, I start by putting two electric fences along the whole length, about five yards apart, then give her another section of fresh grass between those wires each day, and once she has eaten the whole length, she gets another a square to one side, and then another square and another, so the whole area is the shape of a capital L. Once the horizontal part of the L reaches the other line of trees, I close up those newly grazed patches and open up another horizontal line, just next to where she last grazed, and so on until the whole area is grazed. This means that the original strip along the length of the field has been hammered by hooves and repeated nibbling, but the remainder has only had a horse on it for the maximum of two days, and then it gets a complete rest. At the moment, Lucy is in a squarish section of the field which is about ¾ acre, so my plan is a little different, the advancing fence to the left of the picture being moved in squares twice a day, while the back fence, which runs towards the solar panel, gets moved forward weekly so she is on her previously grazed ground for about a week.

Over the last few days she has been pushing over the electric fence, but still staying behind it, and then reaching over the extra two feet for more grass. I wasn’t sure how this was happening since the fence was delivering a shock, until one evening I noticed her pushing one of the plastic fence posts over with her head! ‘Not another unfortunate learned behaviour from an intelligent horse,’ is the edited, but probably more useful version of what I thought! After a day to think about it, I put some hay in her patch yesterday evening, which she went to immediately and started eating. Both it and the allocated grass were gone this morning and the electric fence remained intact – fingers crossed. It’s tempting to think that with enough nutrition in the grass, that a horse should be happy, to disregard Lucy’s fence moving abilities as an annoyance, or to call it that horse keepers’ term of reproach, a vice. But like many other so-called vices, it seems to be just another example of a horse indicating that we are doing something wrong. In this case, I expect it is a lack of roughage, or that Lucy just wasn’t full enough, horses originally living in arid regions where individual mouthfuls of often dried-up grass or leaves had to be walked to, eaten and then slowly digested to release their meagre nutrients.

I have often heard farmers who don’t have horses criticise horses for being the spoilers of fields, because left to their own devices, some areas become overgrazed while the muck areas grow rank. Amongst recreational horse owners, poo picking seems to be the most common horse-related activity to remedy this tendency, to keep the paddocks looking nice and available for horse grazing, but a very time-consuming business with a wheelbarrow. I prefer to rotate the ground between hay and grazing, and as time goes on, I tend to keep Lucy fenced out of a muck area once when she comes back to grazing the same area again. This certainly seems to lessen the rank growth, particularly after hay is cut there the following year. A couple of weeks ago, however, I started another little experiment, and collected the poo from the muck area, [with a horse and sledge, not a wheelbarrow] and spread it very thickly next to that area. Obviously I won’t be able to graze Lucy there this year, so I will probably have to top it later, but I want to see if I can bump start another area with high organic matter levels, and gradually work round the field redistributing nutrients.

A question many people have about my lack of poo picking is about the level of intestinal worms, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem, probably because I keep the horses moving. I used to worm Molly twice a year and when I bought Lucy as a weaned foal, I did worm her, and probably once again since then, but otherwise, neither horse has been wormed for a decade. I do occasionally send a muck sample for my brother to put under the microscope, but he has found no evidence of worm eggs, so the regime seems to be working. Compared with the 6 weekly worming routine often followed by those who have lots of horses on a small amount of land, it must have saved me hundreds of pounds, but it has also saved shocking the horses’ bodies every few weeks, and avoided killing numerous earthworms – a good thing all round.

Take care,

William


William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.


In the last edition of the SFJ Home & Shop Companion you sent, William Castle wrote:

“The first was a short film from a German woman, whose name I don’t remember, about her ox, delivered as she crouched and stood near this animal that towered over her and then later she yoked it to a sledge – nothing remarkable in the activity, but the connection between the two of them was clear and impressive.”

Her name is Anne Wiltafsky and here she is in an old video of a MODA gathering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7QfoP9S13E

Thank you for the weekly news, always a pleasure!

Elke, from Germany


Home and Shop Companion 0068

Home and Shop Companion 0068