Horses in permaculture
Horses in permaculture
Client: Lackan Cottage Farm – Steven & Claire Golemboski-Byrne Date: August 2018 NB – this page is currently a dumping ground for material and ideas so not in order. Some implementation has already happened, and notes of surveying and analysis are being gathered from bits of paper scattered over an even area the size of my house.
I have worked around horses for over 30 years, and so despite it being rather hard to justify their presence, I have 2 horses and 1 pony in my care, all of them previously unwanted or rescued. On the one hand, the company of horses is extremely therapeutic, on the other, they are expensive to keep, and notoriously hard on land – mainly because they are so often given too little land. Our three require over six acres of grazing but the reality is that we have two acres available. This will be eased a little as we are aiming to loan the pony out and just have the two. The challenge we face is to manage the available space for both the health of the horses and the land.
Currently the grazing paddocks are typically grazed very low, and then vacated until the grass shows signs of new growth, but in the absence of anywhere to put the horses other than the paddocks, at least of of them is generally grazed far beyond the point where it is healthy for the land. Winter 2017/18 was especially wet, leading to heavy damage in our largest field, and subsequent bare earth in the spring. The long period of dry weather that followed prevented grass seed from germinating and the result is that a range of alternative wildflower species have colonised the bare earth with interesting results.
Design techniques and principles
I am using the SADIMET framework for this design, and have also incorporated mind maps; core permaculture principles, the DAFOR framework and Mollison’s principles.
We have yet to discover which of the species now growing are palatable to horses, and additionally have to manage the land in such a way that makes use of the horses tendency to dung in specific areas which they will not then graze.
Produce a grassland management design for the available paddocks that maximises yield for horse grazing, whilst encouraging biodiversity and protecting the soil. The plan should consider that currently there are 2 horses and 1 pony, but that the pony may be re-homed in the near future.
The design process
So to begin with I’ve started with a simple mind map of horses with our system, and this has indicated where points of focus might be as I start to survey. I have some very tangible physcial limits to work within:
- Number of horses – currently 3, and unlikely to change, other than one occasionally being lent elsewhere.
- Grazing acreage. We have only 2 fields to use for grazing. The only way to increase available area is to create some non grazing area such as hard standing for the horses that doesn’t compromise existing field area. The total available area is just 1.7 acres, assuming that we retain all the areas indicated on the plan below. Some of this is land that is potentially earmarked for forest garden, further reducing the available area.
- Budget – We have a few hundred pounds to spend on this.
My initial focus is to survey the available resources – I am going to use existing DAERA data where available as basemaps given its accuracy, and in terms of time and labour resources I am the primary provider so can give good estimates.
The farm boundary shown in red; the two fields used for grazing, shaded green, and the junk yard area that could be used for turnout.
- Map and measure paddocks – DAERA maps, satellite, and drone imagery available.
- Contour maps where appropriate
- Catalogue and map current plant species
- Consider provision for hedgerows
- Horse yard area
- Indicator species?
- As per holistic management – time is the issue not the stocking rate.
- Graze – trample – move – regrow
- Specify seed that meets final requirements
- How long can horses graze before moving, how long before regrowth?
- How small an area per day for the horses?
- Where to put the horses when no grazing is available?
- What action needs to be taken right now?
- Worm burden and worming programme.
- Grazing pattern to suit current availability – horses will need occasional run if conditions allow
- Fencing layout
- Seeding, species and schedule
- Harrow or dung removal recommendations
- Worming programme
- Horse yard
- Management of current species
- Prepare horse yard
- Add seed as appropriate
- Plant hedgerows
- Fence hedges where necessary
- Organise electric fence equipment
- Poo pick / harrow
- Horse health, physical, mental
- Grassland health
- Soil health and conditions
- Species diversity
- Worm counts
- New growth
- How does diversity compare with 1 year ago?
- What are soil conditions?
- Is sward density increased? Any bare soil?
- Are horses getting sufficient exercise?
- Are horses grazing evenly?
- Is weather a significant factor?
- Adjust grazing patterns and timing
- Alter or add seed as necessary
- Worming programme
- Interplanting hedgerows
- Harrow dung areas or poo pick – compare effects?
Earth Care – A well designed management plan will ensure that we protect against soil erosion, encourage soil biology, and increase species diversity. Integrating the horses into our farm ecosystems will not be easy but we can mimic their natural habitat and allow natural behaviour in a way that provides fertility to the soil without causing damage through overgrazing or compaction. People Care – The people care ethic is a rather anthropocentric view, and in this instance I am including horses, as their mental well being is vital. They need plenty of exercise, the opportunity to express their horsiness by rolling, grooming and playing, and of course as much quality fresh forage as possible. Wild horses would not normally encounter a monocrop diet of ryegrass, and would move forward continually, so a diverse sward and mobile grazing pattern will give them the chance to behave more naturally. We also have to consider the time and energy involved in maintaining the system as part of the people care ethic. Fair shares – In keeping horses we are performing a balancing act. We have our desire to spent time in their company, and for them to work for us, and on the other hand we want to give them as good a life as possible, preferably in a way that allows them to behave and eat naturally. The lack of sufficient pasture means that they are likely to spend a good deal of time in the yard, but we can still consider ways to give them occasional access to the fields in all but the worst weather.
I am fortunate to have access to the NIEA (Northern Ireland Environment Agency) ARC Gis mapping system, which gives detailed maps at a range of scales and which is up to date. It includes general 10m contour information, which essentially maps our land as completely flat so I’ll be taking additional contour information where necessary at 0.5 – 1m intervals. The maps below show the two grazing areas under consideration at a scale of 1:500.
The south field (0.3ha) had been used as horse turnout in winter 2017/18 and suffered badly, having lost vegetation cover over approximately half of its area. In the spring this was chain harrowed using a horse drawn harrow to minimise further compaction, and then reseeded with a broad mix of seed. Unfortunately this was followed by a ten week period with almost no rainfall, and so little of the seed will have germinated.
However a range of species has flourished and colonised the bare soil, and I have been surprised at the diversity that we find in this field, and that on closer inspection many of the species growing are in fact very useful plants in their own right. I have categorised the species according to the DAFOR framework* – Dominant, Abundant, Frequent, Occasional and Rare.
- Dominant: Common knotgrass, Ryegrass
- Abundant: Broad leaf plantain
- Frequent: Fat hen, Yarrow, Sorrel, Persicaria, Rough meadowgrass, Smooth meadowgrass
- Occasional: Mullain, Chickweed, Shepherd’s Purse, Pineapple weed, Groundsel, Nettle, Bracken, Dandelion, Gorse, Blackberry, Hawthorn, Marsh Woundwort, Marsh Cudweed
- Rare: Wild raspberry, Elder * Permaculture Design, Aranya, 2012, p 59.
Provide a biodiversity baseline analysis at the outset of the design. Provide a clear pasture management plan that details planting, grazing patterns. This will later form part of the succession plan. Provide plan for development of alternative outside accommodation for the horses.
There are several parts to this design: Planting and biodiversity – planting for wildlife, nutrition and robustness Grazing patterns and management – maximising nutrition, recreation for horses, land health Winter yard design – Shelter, outdoor space for horses, mental health
Between the back of the stables and the main solar panel array is an area that we levelled with hardcore left over from demolishing the old cottage extension. It was used to store straw for several years and lately had been full of pallets and our collection of scavenged materials.
In spring we realised that this yard area could be useful as part of our pasture management, giving us somewhere to allow the horses to be outside without destroying the pasture.
The problem is the solution
Initially the yard was covered by a mixture of old rotten straw and soil, and pallents. We cleared the pallets to one side, spread the decomosing soil out evenly (ish), and planted a crop of potatoes into it. The theory being that when we had the time to come and clear the yard, we could harvest the crop and make use of the composted straw. The rear wall of the stables is also rather wobbly and had been supported in part by piles of pallets.
Initially I aimed to use the pallets elsewhere and buy in metal IBC cages, which we would then fill with the manure, plant with potatoes and harvest through the sides of the iBC’s. Later when we couldn’t get the cages cheaply any more, I realised that the problem of the piles of the pallets and wobbly walls presented an opportinity to make giant planters out of the pallets, which we would fill with the compost and soil. At the open end of the yard this would also provide a sturdy enough barrier to keep the horses in, and we could plant edibles and / or screening windbreaks on top.
In this case will be the number of available pallets, quantity of compost (just enough to fill the barrier, as it turns out) and the need to plant only things that will be non-harmful to horses and preferably, in the case of windbreak screening, not too palatable. Also budget which is small, and time – ideally a few days work. So we did harvest a reasonable crop of potatoes – the extremely dry weather hadn’t helped the yield but it was better than nothing. We then created the planters across the end of the yard, built retainers behind the stables, and filled most of them with compost. The empty ones will be filled with horse manure as the yard will need to be kept clean when in use.
There was over 6 cubic metres of composted material and soil on the yard, so I hired a 3 tonne digger for the day, cleared all the material, and then spread 8 tonnes of quarry waste over the yard to provide a level hard standing that would drain well.
It is now approximately 7 weeks since the horses were completely withdrawn from the pasture, other than 1 day stint in the side field by the woods. The results are quite noticable – although the grass is growing much more slowly at this time of year, we’ve had a warm autumn and it is still growing. Certainly the biggest and most damaged of the fields is looking considerably better, and the bare soil is becoming covered. This time last year it was damaged to the extent that the horses had churned the ground up and there was no growth on around a quarter of the field. This also resulted in a lot of puddles and standing water. This time we’re not seeing that, despite plenty of rainfall.read more
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