Farmers are being urged to focus on nutrient management planning, optimisation of soil fertility, using organic manures strategically and increasing clover in swards, all balanced with prudent fertiliser usage. While increasing clover use is not something equine farms are encouraged to do, the other management aspects mentioned all merit adoption by equine owners. Good grassland management is a key component of horse production as it ensures good quality grass during the grazing season, the production of quality forage to meet winter feed requirements, and healthier horses.
Horse owners should be familiar with their fields/paddocks and the type of land/soil they have. Having healthy soils is a key factor in growing healthy crops (including grass) and can also help reach environmental goals. If unsure of what type of land you own or rent, take out a spade to look beneath the surface at what condition of soil structure is present.
Soil flora and fauna such as earthworms, insects (e.g. beetles) and micro-organisms (e.g. bacteria and fungi) which play a crucial role in soil functioning, can’t survive without a healthy soil environment and a good supply of air and water. Under poor soil conditions, plant roots don’t function as they cannot explore the soil to extract soil water and nutrients. A healthy soil with good biological activity is vital in nutrient cycling and making nutrients available to plants.
In most cases, the release of fertilisers that are applied is directly controlled by soil microbes. If soil microbes don’t have the right conditions, nutrients are not used efficiently and can be lost to the environment. For example, in water-logged soils where oxygen is absent, nitrogen is converted into nitrous oxide. If you dig up water-logged or compacted soil, a foul or putrid smell may be noticed, generated by microbes working where there is no oxygen and is a bad sign. Plant roots equally not only need water, but also air to survive.
Soil sampling is another important step in understanding soil nutrient requirements and soil analysis establishes fertility levels of major nutrients such as lime, phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). Knowing the farm’s soil fertility, field by field, is the first step to calculating fertiliser requirements, and controlling fertiliser costs. Properly taken soil samples, sampling the top 10cm of soil, in a W pattern, avoiding any unusual areas of the pasture i.e. gateways, latrine areas etc., a minimum of 20 cores per two-four ha, not sampling within three to six months after the last application of P and K or within two years of last lime application, are crucial.
pH and lime
Ascertaining lime requirement is always the starting point of good soil nutrient management. Aim for pH 6.3 on mineral soils and 5.5 on peaty soils for grass production. This is essential for soil nutrient availability (N, P, & K) and will increase the productivity of the grass sward annually.
Guidelines on lime application
Phosphorous (P) and (K)
Under the most recent Nitrates Action Plan March 2022 (Good agricultural practice for the protection of waterways) the regulations state that “P index for soil shall be deemed to be Index 4 unless soil test indicates a different P index is appropriate in relation to that soil” with the implication that no P chemical fertiliser can be spread without prior soil testing (tests not more than four years apart). Applying fertiliser without soil test information is akin to shooting in the dark.
A soil test report indicates the soil’s P and K status. On productive ryegrass swards the aim is for P and K Index 3, the agronomic optimum. Maximising grass production on haylage / hay areas is important for both grass yield and quality. However, on the grazing areas for equines this may not be required due to lower grass demand. Maintaining soils P & K Index 2 may be sufficient depending on grass production requirements. (See Table 1).
The nitrates directive sets a limit on the amount of livestock manure that can be applied to land in any year on a holding at 170kg of organic nitrogen per hectare (50kg Org N/ha on commonage land) when combining Org N deposited directly by grazing livestock and that applied as organic livestock manure.
This is based on the type and number of livestock on the holding each year. Table 3 on the opposite page shows the organic N produced by different types of equine stock during one year. To calculate the farm organic N value on a holding multiply the annual average number in the various stock categories, described in the table below, by the total nitrogen excreted value and then add these together. Values are also available for other livestock that may be present (i.e. cattle & sheep). (See Table 2).
The total nitrogen produced by all livestock on the holding divided by the hectares (ha) of the farm determines the nitrogen from livestock manure produced on the holding (kg Org N/ha/year). This figure is then adjusted for any imports or exports of livestock manure to determine the whole farm stocking rate. For example one mare and foal (50 & 25 Org N) on one hectare (ha) of land will equate to a stocking rate of 75kg Org N/ha. (See Table 3).
Trace minerals including copper, selenium, manganese, iodine, zinc and iron are all important. Lack of trace minerals or imbalance in trace mineral intake has been linked to reproductive and orthopaedic deficiencies. Antagonists including molybdenum, iron and sulphur can, for example, interfere with the uptake of copper. Climate change is also having an impact with cases of selenium toxicity increasing as perhaps a hidden impact of the dry summers. Herbage sampling undertaken in the summer months can act as a check on the fertiliser programme and maximise information to inform decision making re supplementation.
Nutrient management planning
Identifying if soils are at optimum pH levels and optimum phosphorous (P) and potassium levels (K) before spreading fertiliser ensures only to apply fertiliser that is required. This can also be a cost-saving measure, particularly relevant with fertiliser prices at an all-time high and prices not expected to fall for the foreseeable future. Consult an advisor to develop a nutrient management plan for your farm where soil test information is available. This is a written plan calculating maximum farm N & P allowances and planning how major nutrients such as lime, N, P & K will be delivered during the growing season at the right time and right rate.
Research has shown that there is significant scope to improve farm nutrient management planning on Irish farms, and soil testing is central to achieving this. Having a nutrient management plan for your farm is the best way to:
The aim should be to only apply sufficient nitrogen and phosphorous to meet annual grass demands which tend to be low on equine farms. (See Table 4).
Table 4 shows the recommended levels of N, P & K for a farm stocked at 1 LU/ha (i.e. Mare and Foal). The suggested fertiliser examples in the table above do not take into account farm adjustments to N & P allowances and it is therefore advisable to work from a fertiliser plan on actual farm N & P allowances. (See Table 5).
Well-rotted farmyard manure (FYM) can be used successfully on grazing areas for horses. However, composting before spreading, to temperatures above 40 degrees celsius, is critical to protect against parasitic re-infestation of pasture. FYM application can encourage more even grazing, and provides organic matter. FYM also has the advantage that it releases nutrients over a longer time period than chemical fertilisers. It contains the following available nutrients – 1.4kg N, 1.2kg P & 6kg K/ tonne. An application of 25 tonnes per hectare (10 tonnes /acre) is beneficial and should be targeted to areas of the farm that are cut for silage / hay. Manure varies widely in composition depending on its origin and storage. Cattle or pig slurry may be used where available.
Spread fertiliser when soil and weather conditions are suitable i.e. soils at >5 degrees Celsius, good traffic ability where machinery can work without damaging soil structure; and with 48 hours dry weather after application (Check Met Eireann in advance).