This time of year, and hopefully earlier in the spring, sees a lot of paddock maintenance for horse owners.
The grass is growing fast, which unfortunately means that the weeds are growing even faster. I keep seeing ragwort rearing it`s ugly head, in paddocks, in central reservations, in hedgerows. That needs pulling up faster than a teenager squeezing a spot. Other weeds, such as dock leaves or buttercups can be sprayed, providing that you get the right weather conditions. Or they can be chopped off.
Spraying them with weedkiller attacks the roots, which should kill the whole plant and stop it re-growing or the roots getting more established. However, you need a calm day, patience, the ability to rest your paddock for a fortnight, and a couple of fine days (easier said than done in Britain). That means that most of us opt to top the fields.
Topping is basically mowing the lawn on a large scale. The plants are chopped off an inch from the soil, which weakens the plant in the fact that they can`t photosynthesise, but ultimately they will return next year. The secret to topping a field is to do it before the docks have gone to seed, because ultimately you are just spreading their seeds and helping their cause. Also, they have then had a month of growing time, which means stored energy for next years growth, and more established roots. With buttercups, you want to top before they flower because that will weaken the plant the most and hinder regrowth.
So topping the field removes all the weeds, but it also has another useful job, which people tend to forget.
Horses are notoriously fussy eaters and quite often they leave areas of grass in their field, which get long and unsightly. This is called sour grass, and no matter how well grazed the rest of the field is, the horse won`t touch these areas. In order to prevent these sour patches extending and taking over the field, the best course of action is to top them. Cut the grass so it is quite low and then leave the field to rest for a week or so. There will be some new growth and the horse will, or should, graze the field more evenly. If you don’t top fields, or cross graze with other animals, then the patches will eventually take over the whole field and leaving it looking very horse-sick.
We, (well, the royal we) have put a lot of effort into repairing Otis`s field. He was moved into another field in May which had more grass. But also bigger weeds. So we divided the field in half lengthways, and he grazed one side down. Once he`d been in the first half a fortnight he had eaten the good grass, exposed the sour patches, and eaten around the weeds. On the next calm day, I moved him into the other side so he could begin the same procedure and his loving chauffeur/groom/minion sprayed the dock leaves and some buttercups. I had been pulling some buttercups up as I poo-picked in the fortnight previous, so there weren`t that many to get. Once the dock leaves had wilted we scythed them down, and scythed the sour patches of grass. Interestingly, although these areas looked lush and green, when you looked closely there was no sward and the grass near the soil was yellow and soggy – hardly appealing to Otis.
A fortnight after the spraying of the weeds we repeated the process in the other side of the field. You could see there were a few little dock leaves that we had missed, but we will get them next time!
Now Otis has grazed both sides in a ten-day cycle, which has evened the growth of the grass and means the patches of sour grass haven’t gotten any bigger, and they may have even gotten a little smaller. But last weekend we decided to top one half of the field. Immediately it looked better, and now that it has rested a week it has a much more even growth to it, so hopefully when Otis goes into it this week he will eat all of it! I think, and I know I`m slightly biased, but our field looks better than the neighbours.