Horses, wild flower and herb rich meadows, and buttercups

Diverse flower rich grassland offers grazing animals a naturally healthy and balanced mixed diet which is much closer to the ancient natural grassland these animals evolved to eat.

On our farm near Bath we keep 24 shire horses on grassland that is either naturally rich in flowers, or agriculturally ‘improved’ grassland which we have now ‘unimproved’ and re-diversified by over-seeding with wild flower seed from our best meadows.

Shire group

Horses and ponies, in particular, benefit as they are very sensitive to diet and can suffer metabolic disorders if fed on rich modern fertilised pastures containing only a few species (sugar-rich ryegrass and clover principally, which are better suited to intensive high-input dairy farming). A healthy diverse mixed diet is better.

Seed Mixture options

Emorsgate offer a choice of mixtures for creating grassland that is suitable for grazing with horses or other livestock.

Wild flower meadow mixtures.

The composition of our meadow mixture range is based on plant communities of wild flowers and grasses found in unimproved traditionally managed meadows.

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These meadow mixtures are suitable for both grazing and hay making, and are safe for livestock.  We only include plant species in our meadow mixtures that are regular components of traditionally grazed meadows, and none that are overtly toxic (like ragwort!!).

Wild flower meadow mixtures actually benefit from being grazed outside of the hay season (ie from August through to spring). A combination of cutting for hay plus grazing is actually better for flowering diversity and structure than cutting alone. (for more on this see grassland management)

These meadow mixtures, it must be said, are designed principally for diversity and wildlife rather than productivity; they generally deliver less grazing and fodder per acre than reseeded and fertilised leys.

Grazing mixtures

Our mixtures EG26 and EG27 offer an alternative halfway compromise between modern agricultural ley mixtures and wild flower meadow mixtures.

These two grazing mixtures offer

  • increased potential productivity compared to wild flower mixtures
  • they grow well in fields too fertile for wild flowers
  • they are less demanding of inputs than modern ley mixtures
  • clovers and herbs which can deliver some biodiversity benefits such as pollen and nectar for bees and insects (but in this last regard are never as good or long-lasting as wild flower meadow mixtures).

 

For more on grazing management (including weeds and buttercups) read on ...

Wild flower meadows and pasture produce grazing and hay which is typically higher in fibre and minerals than ryegrass leys.  Deeper rooted wild flowers in meadows, such as knapweed and birdsfoot trefoil, are more able to access and draw up minerals from deeper layers in the soil than shallow rooted grasses.  Deep roots also mean that plants can find moisture and withstand surface drought for longer and still produce some valuable fresh green growth.

A number of wild flowers and herbs also contain compounds of medicinal benefit which can offer some protection against worms or disease.  Birdsfoot trefoil, for example, which thrives on our fields with shallow soils, contains tannins which can inhibit bloat. Horses and other grazing livestock reportedly self-medicate by selectively grazing plants like selfheal when required for their health.

Whilst the productivity of semi natural grassland is generally less than from reseeded and fertilised pastures, the growth and development of diverse swards is spread more evenly over the growing season.  There are not such pronounced peaks in growth and protein content that characterise ryegrass/clover leys, and which can be a cause of laminitis or bloat.  The digestibility of herbage in a mixed sward is sustained for longer through the season; it does not peak and decline as much, or as early in the season, as a single species ryegrass stand.  This makes timing hay making and managing grazing easier.

We maintain our own grassland by grazing with horses at stocking densities matched to the natural productivity and fertility of each field. Grazing is rotated and the field rested once the grass sward has been eaten down to 5cm. Our more fertile fields, with deeper loamy soil, need the most intense grazing, and may also need topping from time to time with a mower to even up growth and suppress weeds.  Our less fertile fields, which carry the greatest flowering diversity, can be grazed more extensively and only very occasionally need selective topping of patches of coarse vegetation. Each year some fields are rested from grazing; these fields are shut up between spring and midsummer to allow wild flowers to flower and set seed, and to provide a hay crop for winter feed.

Weeds

Weeds are held in check by good grassland practice. By contrast, poor management with overgrazing and poaching creates openings for weed invasion.  We avoid leaving animals in one field too long, with average sward height always 5cm or more, and we keep livestock off vulnerable areas in winter.  Through this management and reduced inputs of artificial fertilizers we have experienced an overall reduction of problem weeds like creeping thistle and coarse grasses to the point where we can deal with smaller numbers of residual weeds by spot treatment, digging or pulling (eg. in case of ragwort). For more on this see weeds.

Buttercups

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Not all meadow wild flowers in our grassland are as nutritional or beneficial to horses and other livestock. Some meadow plants, like buttercups for example, contain compounds which are potentially harmful to horses.  Our meadows naturally contain good numbers of both meadow and bulbous buttercup. In practice this presents no problem to our Shire horses as they, like livestock in general, can avoid any ill effects because the plant compounds they contain are also distasteful - they simply graze around them.  This is why horse paddocks and other grazed pastures sometimes turn yellow with buttercups after the horses have eaten everything except the buttercups!

Buttercup is quite safe in hay as once the plant is cut and dried any toxin dissipates, and the plant is harmless. Reports of problems that do arise are typically associated with horses left on poor grazing with little good forage remaining, at which point they may be tempted by the remaining distasteful or toxic plants and some effects can result.

Buttercups are one of the commonest and most familiar wild flowers associated with meadows, so meadow buttercup and sometimes bulbous buttercup are key components in many of our standard wild flower mixtures.  (We never include creeping buttercup as this species is too much of a nuisance weed!).

 

 

 


Posted on 05 February 2018,
Category: Advice

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